Something was Lost: The Sign System in Late Capitalist Media

I

Things are going to slide… slide in all directions; the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold and has overturned the order of the soul… when they said repent, I wonder what they meant” –Leonard Cohen.

                One could have imagined Cohen reading Jean Beaudrillard while writing the lyrics to “The Future” (quoted above), for the seemingly nihilistic outlook belays much of Beaudrillard’s outlook if we are to consider his theory of hyyperreality, of “things eluding the dialectic of meaning”, as possessing a similar intellectual property; after all, Cohen’s evocative musical piece harks on the impossible: an apology from the sign. Although Beaudrillard foregoes asking for an apology, opting instead to lament the death of the irrecoverable signification once promised by the sign, both connote a defeatist overtone—they see society as far-gone.

This is not to dismiss their crusades, however. After all, the world has, in fact, been under assault from change. The originality of the sign has been vanquished, never again to be recovered. How are we to tell (as an example) what “freedom” means when Orwell’s dystopia seems not too far away? When governments spy, assassinate and imprison their citizens on a massive scale, when wars of aggression are launched, and when labor unions are seen as non-essential while corporations reaping massive profits are viewed as ‘part of the American dream’ within a political discourse dominated by an inverse: that all of this is what freedom looks like. How can anyone not be a defeatist when, as a society, people long ago lost their conception of what progress looked like?

The issue, of course, is the definition of this progress: to Cohen progress, as seen through his kangaroo cry concerning drugs and sexuality (“give me crack and anal sex”, slight mystifications for the increased awareness of drug use and increasing acceptance of homosexuality), takes on a reactive nature—left progressivism is destroying the purity of the conservative sign. This is not the issue for Beaudrillard who views the issue in the reverse: that the sign system lacks any coherent signification at all, that left or right, the meaning of sexuality has been conflated with, for all intents and purposes, a shampoo commercial: skin, water, soft-spoken voices; speaking within a poststructuralist framework, that very erroneous theoretical potion which drove Beaudrillard to the point of semiotic madness in the first place, sexuality is as artificial as the hamburger one orders at MacDonald’s. With progress being contested, the sign as a whole in doubt, and society crumbling (?), how does one re-set the sign system? Is it even possible? More to the point, if it is possible would it be something even desirable? To understand this complex question one must dive deeper: into capitalism and the culture it spawned.

II

                Michael Moore may in fact be everyone’s favorite social-democratic clown, but he brings up a point: “maybe would should give that other ‘ism’ a try”, of course, that other “ism” is something he would have no conception of as it represents a major break with capitalist social-relations. The other “ism” is “socialism”. Something he misrepresents in his sensationalist film “capitalism: A Love Story”. Moore is not alone in his incorrect grasp of capitalism: a chapter from Noami Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, illustrates this point through her opposition to Milton Friedman’s “Chicago School” economic regime. Rallying against Friedman’s “fundamentalist form of capitalism”[1], Klein deconstructs neo-conservative ideology through offering her own brand of social-democracy based within a critique of what she dubs “disaster capitalism”, or “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities”[2]. While this view is all well and good for enabling another perspective of how capitalism functions within a neoliberal epoch, the conclusions that she arrives at negates her apparent wish to see capitalism become beautified or transcend its current predicament: her smearing of Marxist-Leninist theory as “doctrinaire, authoritarian, and contemptuous [treatment] of pluralism [which] led to Stalin’s purges and Mao’s reeducation camps”[3], belay her ideological confusion as one in the same with Moore’s; which is to say that neither wish to see a societal transformation into a new “-ism” because both cannot see the need for such “authoritarian” theory and its necessity in a postmodern world.

Culture is to blame for this, at least in part. Louise Althusser developed his concept of an Ideological State Apparatus (or, “I.S.A”) and the Repressive State Apparatus (or, “R.S.A”) due in part to the widespread anti-communist sentiment; his theory was that the ISA would disseminate propaganda, incubating the working class against fighting for their own interests, while the RSA would brutally repress and oppress those who saw through the trickle-down ideology. Social-democracy, the so-called ‘great compromise’, can be therefore construed as a fusion of both the ISA and the RSA by virtue of its function to downplay (violent) revolution and uphold reformist ideologies at the expense of the working class attaining class consciousness; speaking directly, however, at the root of the problem, (contemporary) social-democracy was the result of cultural disenfranchisement; thanks to the ever changing nature of the sign, proletarian youth, organizers, and intellectuals became confused by the correct path to revolution, or real social change, during a time when “actually existing socialism” had either decayed to a pale reflection of its former self, gutted as many so-called “socialist” states were by revisionist parties, or when the actually existing nature of socialism stopped actually existing as a whole (the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc, defeat of the national liberation wars, etc.).

What was left was a void. A void which showed itself through a proliferation of dead-end Left-Wing ideologies (Trotskyism, Anarchism, Left-Communism, Hoxhaism, Juche), progressive bourgeois movements (Occupy Wall-Street), ultra-conservative vanguards (The Tea Party, Klu Klux Klan, Republican and Democratic candidates), and crypto-reactionary organizations (Anti-Illuminati groups, Zeitgeist movement off-shoots, 9/11 Truthers); while the extreme right, the Strasserist, National Bolshevik (Socialist and Anarchist)s, and various neo-fascist organizations clouded in either secularism (re: Alexander Jugin) or religion (Political Islam, Zionism, Christian Identity Movement), gained ground at an unprecedented pace, laying waste to the claim that after the collapse of “Stalinism” there would be a great influx to the Left. This void was filled by the “end of history” metanarrative which postmodernists, among the most influential of which was Francis Fukuyama, championed: to gain followers, these (now) bankrupt individuals and organizations defaced history, rendering it nothing more than a means to an end, confusing people with revisionist accounts of historical moments, all-while washing the political consensus in a deluge of misinformation an outright lies. All of this was post-structuralism at its worst: everything at once yet no clear strongman (-sign).

Social-democracy, of course, filled the void in the university by offering watered down theory: by, on the one-hand, giving a shred of legitimacy to revolutionary socialism’s promise, Moore’s and Klein’s pontification on a humane capitalism, yet on the other hand, promoting the political right; it was nearly as though Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ had stopped giving hand-jobs to the free market long enough to become corporeally manifest and fiddle with a porn star whose name was academia. At the end of the day, nothing truly radical had been promoted: social-democracy’s collision with hyperreality and postmodernism, in general, merely served to once again legitimate bourgeois discourse at a time when revolutionary anti-capitalism seemed like—at best— a bad bet.

In such a climate, even before the climate had reached its contemporary apex, filmmakers and artists began to struggle with how to represent truly divergent modes of thought. Godfrey Reggio solved this dilemma though creating cinematic poetry—a kind of poetry which could only be deciphered through an intellectual (I.E., worldly engagement with capitalism’s affect upon the planet)—structuralism—deconstruction. Films such as Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, movies which borrowed from Native American mythos to tell the modern story of ‘life out of balance’, relied on poststructuralism’s polar opposite: the signification returned to the base, it began as nature and displayed the transition into culture, or myth. The result was deep societal meaning which had recaptured some of the lost meaning.

Reggio’s films therefore skirted the ISA. Their nature and reliance on original signification shifted the ideological narrative: ultimately it remained one of social critique but not one which served capitalist goals; the meaning of the film, after all, was unambiguous—rampant, unregulated capitalism is destroying humanity and society. Scene after scene, shown through an existential take on contemporary life, hammered this point home: whether it was showing the vast, never-ending corridors of the urban center, the desolate dwellings of the poor, or the barren wasteland of once pristine natural environments, Reggio’s take on modern society did something which had been left wanting in a great deal of intellectual discussion, that of refusing the ‘great compromise’ and attacking the superstructure of the accompanying hyperreality.

III

                Resisting this social-democratic hyperreality is done more than in merely Reggio’s films. As artistic as they are, after all, they still adhere to an almost snobbish level of intellectualism and abstract thinking, something many proletarians in a postmodern age no longer understand. Combating such a social cancer can take place outside of academic documentary. As the film Beasts of the Southern Wild shows, sometimes the best way to illustrate resistance is to display said resistance within the context of those struggling against the postmodern narrative itself.

The citizens of a rural, off the grid, southern town—Bathtub—take the fight to the government when they bomb a damn causing wide scale flooding of their community, killing many animals and drowning the crops they depend on to survive. Articulating themselves as fundamentally different from the people who live on the land, promoting a line of demarcation as themselves upholding authentic living with the earth and the ‘others’ as promoting a false, unrealistic existence, the government eventually assaults the community, forcing them into medical detention centers where their non-conformity is tested against the cultural diaspora of authoritarian Caucasian imperialism.

In a dramatic closing scene, the protagonist of the film, a small girl named Hushpuppy, confronts the allegory of the film: a group of bison, large animals shown to break free of prehistoric ice, creatures which had been set-up as to be synonymous with capitalism’s ‘creative destruction’, are halted by the determination of the protagonist; valiantly saying, “I need to take care of my own”, her words acted as a leveling super-weapon against the forces of postmodern-social-democratic multitude—there will be no ‘great compromise’ between her and the bison, the forces of capitalism. She needs to take food to her guardian and cannot spare any of her precious stock to the forces of exploitation and misdirection. The bison, in seeing her defiance, leave her alone.

Hushpuppy here acts as a counter-ISA: she represents an alternative and has been shown to fight for that alternative against overwhelming odds. Her ideology is that of anti-capitalism; in refusing the bison she is effectively de-legitimating the reactionary multitude which the bison enforce. Hushpuppy’s modus operandi is not that of exploitation, of placing herself in a compromising middle position, but of outright rejecting the very existence, purpose, of the creatures. This is a stance that the pundits of postmodern social-democracy (Moore and Klein) find it impossible to offer due to their happenstance worldview: they view exploitation as something neutral, something which can be reformed to serve the common good.

Of course, it is impossible to reform exploitation into a positive. The nature of capitalism does not allow for such a transformation to occur. Which, even if it did, it would have disastrous consequences. As director Oliver Stone will explore, when the postmodern multitude erupts into the protagonist of society, the signifier and the signified lose all meaning while, in its place, a vortex of misdirection, of false ends, takes residence and stifles the revolutionary—anti-postmodernist—discourse.

IV

                In order to properly expand upon the role of postmodern social-democracy, the theoretical canon must be increased. Theorists Theodore W. Adorno, Guy Dubord, Walter Benjamin, and Jean Baudrillard, in addition to Cornel West and Travis Smiley will feature prominently in the following sections. Utilizing theory from Dialectic of Enlightenment, Spectacle of the Society, and the chapters “Fatal Strategies”, “Capitalism as Religion” and “Poverty of Affirmation”, I will demonstrate how a deconstructive reading of the postmodern narrative serves to enhance the comprehension of both culture and history, during this, our present social-democratic moment.

Adorno stated that “culture is infecting everything with sameness”[4], while Baudrillard, returning to our earlier discussion of his theory of hyperreality, maintained that this sameness is a result of the “infinite proliferation” of things being ‘potentialized’, which eludes the “dialectic of meaning”[5]. Understanding ‘potentials’ to be the unrealized possibility of a sign, we can then dissect how such potentials operate within the ever-expanding proliferation of a sameness infected culture, one wrought with tension between the realized potentiality and the yet-to-be realized. A contradiction which gives rise to pro-exploitative (postmodern social-democratic) ideological measures.

Natural Born Killers is relevant precisely for this reason. From beginning to end it is the distancing of the signified from the signifier; a breakdown within the linguistic-machine of signs. Viewers see this entropy through unrelenting parody and violence, of meshing together cultural tropes in order to reveal a non-truth, or a distorted signification of a formerly possible potentialization (ex. The sit-com throw back where the laugh track is set against domestic abuse). With the ending prompting the whole spectacle into completion, of showing how the reproduction of sign’s potentialized value are able to metamorphose into new significations by merely being thrown into relation against other similarly shifted signs, brings meaning to the blindness of society at large just to the extent of the spectacle which they are subsumed within (one needs to think of the women from the smiley and West text).

Natural Born Killers is pure culture. Semiotically speaking, it is myth thrown into overdrive. Nothing has real meaning anymore: even the protagonists, murders on the run, only think day-to-day; Tommy Lee Jone’s character leaves people alive after a massacre only to spread—proliferate—the meaning of his actions. He is a sign with a constantly changing system if we were to examine this behavior in relation to other signs: it is something only begun, in earnest, when he watches the news anchors discuss his conquests. In a world denoted by the sign, he lacks a stable sign. He is poststructualism incarnate. He is self-referential.

Walter Benjamin emphasis, in this light, of capitalism possessing self-referential meaning[6], of satisfying the torment formerly brought to heel by theism has special meaning when understood within the framework of ideology: of the discussion promulgated by Cornel West and Travis Smiley when they dissect the bourgeois outlook of criminalizing poverty, of pretending it does not exist since it then “opens the door to perilous thoughts”[7], the self-referential meaning is a protective measure of postmodern capitalism. It is a kind of insulation against the facts of history and reality: with self-referential power at one’s disposal, the failures of social-democracy in the past can be forgotten; lessons do not have to be learned when history is conceived in a Positivist conception of only ever ‘getting better’ or ‘improving’, hence, the reality of modernity can be dismissed as momentary or subject to great change, unrealized potentials, should objective reality—material conditions—be exposed to sudden and great alterations. Accordingly, this so-called peril becomes the possibility for the opening up of new understandings of socioeconomics and race-relations but also of the start of a critique with the rationale of postmodern social-democracy as its end-goal.

The film “Blindness” concerns itself with precisely this reactionary phenomenon. Concerning itself with ignorance and mutual solidarity during times of crisis, but ultimately of presenting the historical evolution of bourgeois civilization, “Blindness” follows a women, identified only as “The Doctor’s Wife”, as she struggles to care for others within a sanitarium filled to the brink with the infected; those people unfortunate enough to be stricken with a condition which deprives them of their vision. Filled with poignant scenes of struggle and exploitation, the film depicts the irrationality of a decaying spectacle. More to the point, it depicts the reality of a system built on compromise.

From beginning to end Both West, Smiley, and Benjamin’s theses are shown in full light. The ‘disease’, after all, is nothing but an allegory for societal ignorance; just as West and Smiley argue that “the truth about poverty must be affirmed”[8] in order to communicate “a shared interest in the humanity of our fellow citizens”[9], the majority of the characters within the film stricken by the blindness condition, whether through direct or indirect means, display an otherwise callous disposition toward their fellow man. Ultimately, such a disregard for their proletarian brothers and sisters ends up costing them their sight; the price paid for formulating, as Benjamin would put it, their adherence to “the pure religious cult”[10] that is bourgeois individualism, that means which enabled the capitalist system to be birthed.

Any educated in-look into the representational meaning of the sanitarium will conclude that it represented an allegory for capitalism as a whole. To demonstrate, let’s look at the film with the following points in mind: (1) the re-orientation of the sanitarium to a prison was the result of economic crisis; the blindness disease, which ended up devastating the capitalist world, has direct parallels with the bourgeois revolutions of epochs past which overthrew the primitive feudalist and mercantilist systems (a system in peril due to unexpected developments within the economic life of society); (2) the population infected with the blindness disease is representational of the non-proletarian strata becoming ‘proletarianized’ by industry; if we assume that the sanitarium is a “screen”, following Zizek’s understanding of Lacanian psychology[11], which projects ‘something’, in this case the historical materialist evolution of capitalism, then when the viewer witness the sanitarium become flooded with an ever increasing amount of victims, a connection is drawn between them and the growth of the working class during industrialization; (3) the usage of violence on the part of the group, led by The Doctor’s Wife, to one group of individuals, who rose up through violence (the use of a gun), in order to forcefully expropriate others, represents the natural evolution of class based—bourgeois—society in that it accurately depicts the “visible” non-blind, class conscious strata violently, that is to say revolutionary, rising. The subsequent burning of the sanitarium indicative of the destructive potential of capitalism in that is able to annihilate the world as it stands should conflict become never-ending; (4) when after the so-called “war” with Ward-3 ends, a conflict rendition inevitably indicative of capitalism when we consider its organized aspects, the survivors of the conflict wander into the post-blindness world to hunt and scavenge for food; this moment clearly shows a dialectical display of society returning once more to a hunter-gather lifestyle, the connotation being a new future lying in wait now that humanity, overcoming, or at least surviving the spectacle, now understands once again to rely on each other in order to survive.

To a degree, the sign system has been reset. People must once more reply on a basic culturally constructed sign in order to survive: the bare necessities of language as instruction. Of language leading to physicality, of solidarity, of communitarianism. The sign in this case is not one which is able to be actually seen but one which survives thanks to its prior inscription, only now reduced, to its bare meaning within the context of lacking sight.

V

                Though Blindness is construed as a film brimming with hopefulness, sometimes hopefulness is lacking in films, as is the case with Songs from the Second Floor, which concerns itself with the inevitability of postmodern social-democracy’s death. Socially this manifests as insanity. The protagonist’s brother “drove himself made from writing poetry”, a mode of thought which, remembering the nature of Reggio’s films as a form of Transcendental poetry enabling a deeper perception of reality’s dominant ideology—capitalism— then any “insanity”, especially those living under an epoch of decay, is able to be construed as the fate of the ‘non-blind’ individuals.

There is very little hope. This is reinforced later in the film when a family members says to the “insane” brother: “people are only pretending to not like poetry”, an utterance which speaks of the present—capitalism is decaying, strange maneuverings (the flogging crowd) transpire, while the sign system is retched up to its highest capacity: priests, militarists, and corrupt businessmen are shown to be how their class functions: oppressive, misleading, and murderous. Whether it be through scamming people on religious imagery or hurling little girls from atop cliffs, capitalist social-relations take their barest form. In a period when everything is falling apart—where even the fascistic nature of decrepit postmodern society cannot change the concrete material reality, there is no need to mask the true essence of bourgeois relations.

Hope, accordingly enough, is in few and far places. Although there are indications which point to a better future, it is only in the context of escaping the decaying present; everyone in the film is fleeing the unnamed city. Masses of people jockey with one-another to be among the first to fly out of the city, those who don’t fly, drive, hawking the dusty religious relics of the past out of their truck. Everyone appears to be heading to a land of fancy. Is it the Promised Land of socialism? Is it a new capitalist paradise? The film does not say. All that is said is this: society is crumbling and no one cares, yet everyone has the air of urgency.

 

Although in our present epoch, capitalism is ‘fit and ready’ (to decay into fascism) there still remains grave contradictions within the base. The superstructure bears witness to this when poverty, global warming, and socialism is spoken of (whether it be accusingly or positively). The resulting shock-waves incense people: history, policy, militarism, and more comes into question as soon as the contradictions become evident, become spoken. Reaction becomes virulent. Climate-change denial, austerity, outright fascism… anything to protect bourgeois social-relations are legitimated and called into action against the foes of exploitation. Needless to say, Cohen will never get back his “broken night”. In hindsight, this is probably for the best.

Additionally, I would not recommend repenting.

Footnotes

[1] Noami Klein, The Shock Doctrine, 11.

[2] Noami Klein, The Shock Doctrine, 6.

[3] Noami Klein, The Shock Doctrine, 24.

[4] Theodore Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 94.

[5] Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, 185.

[6] Walter Benjamin, Capitalism as Religion, 259.

[7] Travis Smiley & Cornel West, The Rich and the Rest of Us, 72.

[8] Travis Smiley & Cornel West, The Rich and the Rest of Us, 72.

[9] Travis Smiley & Cornel West, The Rich and the Rest of Us, 94.

[10] Walter Benjamin, Capitalism as Religion, 259.

[11] Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture, 8.

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