Archive for April, 2012

Breaking The Social Silence

April 29, 2012

            In the final concluding chapter of his book The Leaderless Revolution: How ordinary people will take power and change politics in the twenty-first century, Carne Ross writes: “Sorry to say, but those who believe that others should be led, told or coerced, not inspired, are winning. These cynics are far fewer in number than those who want a better way. But they have the better weapons – political access and the abiding power of money over numbers. And their most powerful weapon is secret – it is our own acquiescence and belief in the immutability of the system.” He goes on to quote Financial Times journalist Gillian Tett: “In most societies, elites try to maintain their power not simply by garnering wealth, but also by dominating the mainstream ideologies, in terms of both what is said and what is not discussed. Social ‘silences’ serve to maintain power structures, in ways that participants often barely understand themselves let alone plan.” Ross follows the thread of this “enabling” silence: “Somehow, the neat logic of neoclassical economics and representative democracy has created a cage for our minds, and ambitions. In theory, such systems are ideal; but in practice, their imperfections are ever more evident. And yet the theoretical logic is so often repeated, it is as if an insurmountable wall surrounds our imagination: We can see nothing beyond, and dare not even conceive it. We have been numbed into inaction.” (pgs. 213-214)

            Last night Bill Moyers’ guest was Marty Kaplan, director of the USC Norman Lear Center. In an extensive and long term study of local television newscasts, the center found that only 22 seconds out of any half hour program actually covers local news such as transportation, local governance, neighborhood affairs, school concerns, etc. The gist of Kaplan’s contribution was that the business side of media in this country peddles distraction, relies on it — on news that is entertaining in “following” what the consumer viewer wants (called pull journalism). Ever imaginative and always creative Pop Culture provides the continuous entertainment relief value that enables the “social silence” which fuels the “acquiescence and belief in the immutability of the system.”  

            This week end also saw a miniscule “Occupy” style demonstration on the Licking County Courthouse lawn in Newark Ohio. The fledgling group 99% of Newark and East Central Ohio attempted to call attention to some of the fundamentals of global Occupy. One response was that a representative of The Park National Bank came up to remind the group that we all use banks, and if you are going to bank, Park is where to go. He gushed over the award the bank had received at the previous night’s United Way banquet. Park had once again won the prestigious award for the greatest commitment to community service. He stressed the financial institution’s enabling local youth who can’t afford the summer camp experience to attend the local Camp O’Bannon. Here was a bank that supports the community by giving back. Unfortunately, silence followed. An “insurmountable wall” surrounded the imagination. No one wanted to imagine, let alone say, that this manner of support may actually perpetuate the “separate but equal” ideology of the current status quo. It is doubtful his children ever spent a night at Camp O’Bannon.

            Occupy is uniquely well positioned to address this “numbness and inaction” brought on by the corporate ownership and control of media, especially local media, with its inevitable impossibility of communicating local conditions and shared actualities. The bank prides itself on its involvement in service projects, and can well afford to make that known, hammering it home continuously. But like the occupiers of Zuccotti Park who were denied the use of an amplified sound system or bullhorns, the 99% can utilize the “human mike” to broadcast the actualities of life in Licking County through the human voice, placards and song. Well done folks, an excellent start.

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Default Debt

April 22, 2012

            Unawares, and in spite of all efforts to the contrary, I find myself slipping into infidelity. The feeling is analogous to the one that is had when noticing that a mutually agreed upon contractual service or product purchase is now costing much more because the provider has increased the price without notice or included an undisclosed fee.

            With friends I attended an art opening that was housed in an “historic” and “architecturally significant” building that was currently in limbo. It had a history of being used for other than originally intended purposes (the building itself IS the evidence of many previous owners and tenants). Now it was in various stages of disarray, upheaval, and restoration (violently revealing original craftsmanship details).  That evening this transitional space served as a venue for a disparate group show. Given our contemporary “copy of a copy” aesthetic, it was difficult to discern where some pieces began or ended. This is because, like the walls, ceiling and exposed utilities, these “original” works revealed previous bona fide historic influences, and exemplified hybridism, as well as conscientious denigration of style/epoch. The only area that offered any security of belief was that of the computer video works (McAfee Total Protection!). Of course, this is where most of the crowd gravitated. Funny, the monitor makes the viewer-participant oblivious of surrounding environment. One could just as well be in Auschwitz for all that it mattered since the small screen is all one has to attend to. This in itself speaks more of why the environmental movement has stalled out recently than any expensive academic study duly commissioned to uncover this would. Afterwards we went to dinner and conversation. The talk drifted to Occupy, and the young people who made the art (even though they didn’t exactly “occupy” the building) – ownership of building, ownership of art style, ownership of government. Mention was made of a magazine article covering the same topic, and of various quotes by industrialists of what drives politics (money) as well as “Government belongs to those who own it” remembered as attributed to John Jay, the country’s first chief justice of the Supreme Court.

            The next day I tried to track down the article, without luck (not exactly a scholarly repast the night before).  Researching the quote yielded A. J. Liebling’s “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one”, not quite the same.  A peremptory research of our nation’s first and most influential jurist, and his quotes, made me cognizant of my covert slippage into infidelity. Anticipating secular statements regarding the place of law, rights and freedom, I found religious platitudes instead. “Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.” D’oh! “Whether our religion permits Christians to vote for infidel rulers is a question which merits more consideration than it seems yet to have generally received either from the clergy or the laity.” Yikes! (clergy say more clerics are needed!) “[T]he evidence of the truth of Christianity requires only to be carefully examined to produce conviction in candid minds… they who undertake that task will derive advantages.” This final quote from the originating chief interpreter of our nation’s legal system really raised the hair on the back of my neck and got the critical enlightenment juices flowing.

            John Jay himself was a rather ambiguous/ambivalent historical figure. I guess at the time he would have made perfect sense to his contemporaries, but as a denizen of the 21st century much is murky (analogous to the exposed craftsmanship of the art show). His pantheon of values had the Christian God with the bible’s revelation at its pinnacle, followed closely (or rather supported) by the private property rights of ownership (Only makes sense considering that in the nascent country of that time, an over abundance of “common ground” left private property to be deemed exceptional, vulnerable, and very desirable. Others have pointed out the relationship to the heritage of “ownership” of religious belief. As Thoreau pointed out, what makes for ownership?). After that came the various interactions and relationships of society, community and state. Jay himself owned slaves but worked for emancipation in his state of New York. Ostensibly, he bought people from their owners and then would free these people once they reached a certain age on the grounds that these humans had justifiably paid off their indenture. From this one can conclude that he was a man of his time in sharing the belief of the “naturalness” and legality of ownership, including the ownership of human beings, either as indentured servants or slaves.  

            Part of our evening’s conversation included the young artists featured, and young people today in general. It appears they must go into debt (through their education, transportation and required insurance necessities) BEFORE they can obtain employment in order to pay off the debt that obtaining the job necessitated in the first place. Once there were mortgage burning parties when homeowners celebrated paying off the cost of their residence. Usually these took place concurrent with retirement, the children leaving home, etc. One wonders if today’s young workers, finding only underpaying jobs after incurring enormous debt to obtain those jobs, will celebrate their emancipation day, when they have “justifiably paid off their indenture.”

There Is Nothing Stopping You From Being Like Mitt Romney

April 15, 2012

            October 139 contains a worthwhile article by Trevor Stark entitled “Cinema in the Hands of the People”: Chris Marker, the Medvedkin Group, and the Potential of Militant Film. Motivation for this in-depth look at the French upheavals of the late 1960’s and the various approaches to “document” what occurred through film was the March13, 2007 visit to Besancon by Nicolas Sarkozy. In his speech there he proclaimed that “We have to put culture back into capitalism.” Besancon was the origin of occupation by workers of their factories which eventually spread across the entire nation, etc. Stark considers the separate approaches to film documentary by Marker and the Mevedkin Group of actually putting the camera into the hands of the workers, letting them compose and arrange the film with the approach of Jean-Luc Godard and the Dziga Vertov Group. The issue of distinction centers on the Marxist interpretation of the role of the proletariat in the formation of governance, self governance, prior to and after “the revolution”. One conclusion Stark offers is along the Sartrean existential lines of being in itself and being for itself. Marker’s documentary produced by the actual occupiers themselves was critiqued as being too much the condition of the proletariat as it found itself in the late 60’s (being in itself), whereas Godard’s approach was more of one that attempted to “lead” the proletariat to an awareness and knowledge of its capacity to self governance (for itself). History has borne out Marker’s approach with Godard’s being critiqued as too reliant on a “class” of intellectual “leaders” who determine what is “best” for the proletariat in a revolution of and by the proletariat. Within actually existing Marxist socialist governments, this group of people justified its position by claiming to be part of the proletariat on the basis of a “division of labor” (and there’s the rub). The social struggle in late 60’s France was ultimately undermined by the very folks who were in these positions, the leadership of the trade unions and French communist party. The theoretical foundation of this “made to fail” approach was pointed out by Ranciere in his critique of Althusser. All of this is the stuff of October and comes off as rather arcane academics until one considers Carne Ross’s The Leaderless Revolution and its relevance with regard to today’s Occupy movement.

            The foil for Sarkozy’s need to “put culture back into capitalism” is the quoted statements of the Besancon factory occupiers of the 60’s. “One worker interviewed by Marker argues, “This movement calls into question the entire society in which we live.” Another states, “They want us to always be proles [prolos], uncultivated men who are there for work and that’s it. How do you think a guy who has just worked eight hours at Rhodia can look to develop himself intellectually? It’s almost impossible.” He continues, “We can’t fight exclusively on the union level or the political level, if we don’t fight at the same time on the cultural level, on the level of the development of one’s personality, of one’s intelligence, etc.” At Rhodiaceta, culture signified the capability to express oneself and not be reduced to silence. Not restricted to seeking specific remunerations, the strike contested the very foundation of a political order based upon the division of manual and intellectual labor.” (pg. 122 October 139). Various other accounts by the workers themselves as well as what they chose to portray in their films follows.

            The imagination seizes upon these descriptions and representations of a half century ago much as today’s centennial of the sinking of the Titanic stimulates the public interest. So much like today yet so not today.  Today’s workers may find themselves relegated to “proledom” yet they lack not for the ability to express themselves. The purchase of a cell phone contract or even the more involved digital video recorder and computer for editing allows quick expression/interaction as well as reception and communication through personal correspondence, You Tube, Facebook, etc. etc. etc. With the post-Warhol legitimacy of Pop culture and its embrace by academicians, art historians and working artists, any appeal to an absence or inability of articulation within culture sounds hollow, without ground (could Pop Culture actually be the organized distraction needed to lubricate the smooth running of capitalism?). Yet “proledom” is as “proles” do, the evidence is overabundant. What differs with today that makes for the solidarity with those workers from 50 years ago and yet sets us apart?

            It was once observed that if a human being were a honey bee, the varroa mite would be comparable to a rat attached to a person’s body sucking the life fluids. The late 60’s may have been about absence on account of something being withheld, not made available. Today’s workers must deal with absence due to a parasitism. A curious observation on the difference of the occupiers of Bersancon and today’s Occupy is that those workers got their jobs, period. Today’s workers must obtain the education (and more) as a condition of their employment (there’s that theoretical division of manual and intellectual labor again!). Bersancon’s workers would use their wages to buy a car, vacation, food for the table, etc. Today’s workers must “buy” their own education to have the job with which to pay for that very purchase. Another factor of difference is the extensive utilization of brokers to produce/maintain the mobility of labor. There is nothing new here in terms of the history and practice of migrant or guest workers’ reliance on a labor broker to arrange employment while pocketing part of the worker’s earnings. What differs from the last century is the increasingly large and dominant role that temporary agencies play in providing workers and work today. An anecdotal account was given of a young man refused company employment but hired on through a temporary agency. He now does the same work originally applied for but receives much less remuneration. Ultimately he hopes to become a company employee after he pays off his indentured servitude to the temp agency for having obtained the employment. Today’s workers must purchase whatever class mobility they may imagine. Part of the contemporary “culture wars” is not with regard to culture itself, but whether or not said “culture” is purchased. Culture not purchased is esteemed as “socialist”. The conservative outlook is that anything is possible if you buy it, and anyone can buy. Just as Bersancon’s workers found it demoralizing to have no access to intellectual development/expression, today’s workers find it demoralizing to be burdened with huge debt in the face of low paying available jobs. Analogous to the late 60’s, today’s intellectual labor subverts actual change by advocating for more education (purchased of course) as the fundamental vehicle of change, the engine of mobility. Though no one goes so far as to claim that anyone can be president, they do promote the logic that there is nothing stopping you from being like Mitt Romney.

In The Public Interest

April 11, 2012

            Sky News was the news last week. AP ran an article by Raphael Satter entitled UK Sky News: we hacked in the public interest (4-5-12). Seems the apple of Rupert’s eye didn’t fall far from the tree and was hacking emails along with News Corp at around the same time. The current admission rationalizes the hacking as having been done “in the public interest”. Deep within the bowels of the article David Allen Green, “media lawyer at Preiskel & Co.”, opines that filing charges might be counter productive for the prosecution as it “wouldn’t serve the public interest.” And you know, he is quite accurate in that assessment.

            Here in the American state of Ohio the governor (John Kasich) is remodeling our state government. Ohio’s office of economic development has been transformed into JobsOhio. This is organized as a public private commission, board, corporation (whatever you want to use as lipstick is OK by me). The membership of such “public private” governance is usually split 40/60, public /private. Moneys involved usually is 60/40 public/private. Meetings, decision making, etc. is private (so it is outside the reach of Ohio’s government “sunshine” regulations). But final determinations of commitment with regard to policy, spending, etc. rests with the governor or legislature. More such “collaborations” are in the works, with statewide management of human resources (employment) falling under the same rubric and employment training/education likewise having a new “public private” initiative. Some of the folks representing the “public”, and acting as chair, are distinguished individuals like Gordon Gee, president of the Ohio State University (who was once on the board of trustees of the very private, and now defunct, Massey Energy until its West Virginia Upper Big Branch mine exploded, inconveniently killing the workers inside). Delving deeper, one finds many such commissions and boards comprised of public/ private representatives dealing with public safety, utilities, transportation, natural resources, etc. On the local level we find ditto of above. The duly elected Licking County commissioners have entered into a Community Improvement Corp, with the same makeup as described above. The county seat of Newark, not to be undone, is entering into its own CIC with the city’s corporate big boys. These “developments” involve various tax breaks, easements, zoning changes and structural improvements/services to facilitate business growth. They also determine where the public funding is ultimately spent (enhancing the value of specific business property considerably over that of the surrounding generic residential neighborhoods).

            In Newark, there is currently an imbroglio over allowable signage after a resident posted a blizzard of signs hoping to reconnect with her wayward hound. Although signage in the “business’ districts allow for everything from hi def digital moving imagery to a plethora of small yard/street signs (with dancing gorillas in between), residential addresses are severely limited and restricted as to sign size, duration, quality and require a permit. This insures that the private side stays private, and the public side public. Only in this case one doesn’t really know which is which since the same restrictions imposed on the people who are residents do not apply to the people who are businesses. The logic is this “serves the public interest” by keeping the residential area private while maintaining the corporate as public. Is it any surprise that Mitt Romney sincerely and unabashedly stated that corporations are people?

The Sublime

April 1, 2012

            Sometimes one sees them passing by, a rusted hulk or faded relic riding atop a trailer. They aren’t headed to be sold at the scrap yard. Haggled over and purchased, they are on their way to be restored to what they were originally intended to be, or what folks back then would have modified them to be as per the actual practice of everyday life. Refinished, they will amaze with their gleaming renditions of bygone modes of transportation sharing the very pavement with our contemporary fuel efficient, on star equipped versions.

            Permission had been given to set up an apiary on a recently acquired rural property. It was located on a back road, neither here nor there. This was a ruin from the time when farming as life had crested in the US. Young men went off to fight WWII, “the big one”, never to return to what had been till then “their future”. Old age and disability had eventually separated the residents from their source of vitality. With no descendents interested in carrying on, the house and grounds continued on their own, unabated. The neighboring farm down the road, from the same era, had its tillable land sold off separate from the immediate homestead, now occupied by a young Amish couple. Both houses originated architecturally for more utilitarian requirements like having a place to sleep, eat and stay warm than aesthetic or leisure ones. The remains that the bees would now call home were still intact though the surrounding land and barn continue to be leased for cattle and hay. The house itself was added to and modified, both the original and the additions; i.e. a porch, then the porch enclosed, then the porch made into a florida room, then opened up to accommodate a wheel chair ramp, or a lean to shed, then a carport, then extended for two cars, then an enclosed garage, then walls of glass to serve as a green house for starts, etc. The grounds immediately adjacent to the house harmonize with it; a pond surrounded by various nut trees, the dike raised and pond expanded to within yards of the back door, a fir tree forest originally planted as a windbreak now overshadowing many different varieties of fruit trees, fallen down grape arbors and more large nut trees, throughout, flowers and berry bushes of every kind, both intentional and volunteer, crammed into any available nook, cranny or corner. The grass of the grounds has been continuously grass for so long that a layer of hummus is distinctly evident in the sod that was broken for the new hive stands. Life has outlived the folks who lived here.

            It all made me wonder about art, beauty and the sublime. The rusted hulks and faded paint relics that collectors, hobbyist and pop culture artists restore to show off shiny and perfect at car shows, exhibitions and competitions all originated as perfect, undamaged, only to be resurrected as the same. No one would dare restore or resurrect the ruins of this household, pond and garden simply because no one could. The least little detail of any of it embodies, maps, what made it possible; the winds, rain and draught that damaged or nourished it, the pests and diseases that grew with it and are part of it, the economy that enabled or restrained desire. At what point could one hop in and say “this is what was there”? It is a continuance which out raced those that had delighted in it, a continuance which cannot be frozen in the LL Bean catalogue fashion of an art show, exhibition or competition. It is comprised of damaged goods, all the things that fall short, all the inadequacies, dysfunctions, indeterminacies. It didn’t start out as perfection, nor did it originate from perfection. It simply continues. Like the sublime, it outlives us all.