The Language of Quotation
30 October 2006
When the individual has reached a hundred years of age, he is able to do without love and friendship. Illness and inadvertent death are not things to be feared. He practices one of the arts, or philosophy or mathematics, or plays a game of one-handed chess. When he wishes, he kills himself. When a man is the master of his own life, he is also the master of his death.’ ‘Is that a quotation?’ I asked. ‘Of course. There is nothing but quotations left for us. Our language is a system of quotations’. -Jorge Luis Borges, A Weary Man’s Utopia (1975)Somehow the world has become a mediocre comic book, as predictable as a Star Trek episode. I grew up watching Star Trek and still love it for its graphic design, but it was never embarrassed about cannibalizing from its past storylines, and eventually it got so bad that ten minutes into an episode you could anticipate the entire plot-line. But this is an effect not confined to a show like Star Trek, it is true of almost anything on television. I was surprised when I read Chapter 18 of John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards earlier this year in the way he blended his view of art history and it’s failure to adequately resolve itself to television, which he saw as the logical conclusion of centuries of attempts at realistic image making. Image making, he thought, is tied to our desires for rituals. And TV combines animated images with ritual plot-lines, as predictable to contemporary viewers as those reciting along with a priest as he holds up the host. As he wrote:
People are drawn to television as they are to religions by the knowledge that they will find there what they already know. Reassurance is consistency and consistency is repetition. Television – both drama and public affairs – consists largely of stylized popular mythology in which there are certain obligatory characters who must say and do certain things in a particular order. After watching the first minute of any television drama, most viewers could lay out the scenario that will follow, including the conclusion. Given the first line of banter in most scenes, a regular viewer could probably rhyme off the next three or four lines. Nothing can be more formal, stylized and dogmatic than a third-rate situation comedy or a television news report on famine in Africa. There is more flexibility in a Catholic mass or in classic Chinese opera.
He went on to say, (and I think this is a kicker given how it was probably written in the 1980s):
The rise of CNN (Cable News Network) canonizes the television view of reality as concrete, action-packed visuals. Wars make good television, providing the action is accessible and prolonged. The Middle East, for example, is an ideal setting for television war. Cameras can be permanently on the spot, and a fixed scenario of weekly car bombs, riots and shelling ensures that the television structure will have ongoing material.
(It makes Steven Colbert’s joke about this past summer’s Israel-Lebanese war more than just a joke but a perfectly conscious reflection of the reality of the situation). In addition, the violence on television reflects a long Western tradition in depicting violence, seen in graphic mediaeval crucifixions and the tortured damned we are familiar with from those seemingly unenlightened times.
But from the enlightened times we got Goya’s image, the sleep of reason producing monsters. As Mark Kingwell points out in his essay ‘Critical Theory and Its Discontents’ the image’s caption can be read two ways, as either ‘the sleep of reason produces monsters’ or ‘the dream of reason produces monsters’.1 John Ralston Saul, with Voltaire’s Bastards took the later interpretation for his thesis. But the experience of this decade is one of the first reading: the thoughtlessness of the times producing predictable nightmares.
Everything has gotten so insane that peace and quiet and non-interaction certainly has a lot more appeal. No need to answer the same old questions about how I am, which are rhetorical and meaningless, no need to tell the same boring stories about myself or the state of my life, no need to feel the peer pressure of conforming to someone else’s idea of who I am, who I should be, or how I should be.
It is better in this decade to withdraw and watch operas on DVD (Wagner’s The Ring), or famous TV shows (Battlestar Gallactica is like such a masterpiece); and to avoid browsing websites too much because it just seems to add to the sense that everything has gone to bullshit, as MacLeans seems to think as well. So I missed the whole beauty video thing until the day before I saw it on the front page of The Toronto Star, and as I’ve been adjusting over the past month to a 6.30am wake up time to become a ‘corporate minion of patriarchy’ (my Halloween costume) I’m not so eager to go a’gathering for goodreads.
I’ve been warning you all for months now that this project isn’t what it used to be, and that will continue to be true in the future. This list began small enough that I knew my audience – drank and laughed with some of you in the past – but now has become anonymous and my motivations for doing it continue to be some sick sense of responsibility to do my part to inform whoever might come a’googlin.
I should be much more selfish and egotistical to fit in properly I know. But my work on the web in the past has come from a desire to document, and at this time I would like to use this list to promote and to document for whatever that’s worth.
Death of a President was released in North America on Friday, and it probably won’t be in theatres for long. Not that it matters, because it will attain a deserved cult-status on DVD or streamed from wherever.
First of all, having never seen George W. Bush in person he has always been nothing but an animated image to me. Real through portrayal and the delusion of the animated image, and so fitting, I think, to see that image manipulated into another version of a potential reality borrowed from many months from now. The skill of the digital effects became apparent very quickly; ten minutes into it I recognized it as a masterpiece, a shockingly effective use of Photoshop-like tech, and a devastating commentary on current global-american-centric-politics. I mean, what other President of the United States has inspired a fictional yet realistic depiction of his assassination while still in office to the extant that the film is presented as an historical documentary on the subject?This blending of time – watching images from a future, depicting an event from a year from now, presented as some bleeding-heart leftist documentary typically shown on CBC Newsworld on Sunday nights, twists itself into the cold water blast of just how stupid everything has gotten (given how the movie is built out of the current media clichés, from the dialogue right up the structure) but also how we’re caught up in a television dream dictating reality to us. The film hits all the right points, with an eerie accuracy, from the deluded missus posing as Bush’s speechwriter saying how he was somehow connected to God, to the political backdrop of North Korea and Iran. The speeches have been written and the players have taken to the stage and Shakespeare’s famous line has never seemed more true.
And for that reason, for the sheer fictionalization of our reality, this moment in later history which seems real because it is on TV, real through portrayal, this film will also be must-see viewing for Presidential historians, both present and future. I am compelled to write about it now, to time-stamp this text with the current date, so that there is evidence to future researchers that this movie came out a year before the October 2007 events that it depicts. I would like to think that this movie will still be watched in future years, long after the Bush administration; as a sociological study of this decade, a study in documentary narrative, as an art film, and as an historical marker of the transformative power of Photoshop-like effects. I got a glismpe watching this movie of the media-scape of the upcoming century and felt future-shock. Nuanced political discourse through fictional history, which only highlights our current confusion between memory and thought. This film is cultural evidence that we can only seem to think through the ‘hindsight is always 20/20′ trope, and that retrospective documentaries have become so prevalent in the age of the self-absorbed baby-boomer-at-the-controls-of-everything (and hence a narcissistic mediascape on their politics, youth, and classic album collections) that it’s only fitting to examine a presidency’s attack on civil liberties through the genre.
The CBS Sunday Morning program had a piece on Oct 29 on the beauty video and Photoshop – explaining what young creative people take for granted to the old foggies who watch that sentimental sunday morning sunshine stuff. And the key is what young people are taking for granted versus what the old foggies running the show have in their minds about our future. An older person close to me the other day posited that I might live long enough to see one of Toronto’s main traffic arteries – the Don Valley Parkway – turned into a double-decker highway. As if allowing for more greenhouse gas emitting machines would be an adequate solution to our traffic problems, a vision completely oblivious to environmental concerns. I countered I’d much rather see a better public transit infrastructure built. But of course, I understand where this idea comes from. It’s classic ‘cars are a great and my identity as a man is tied to the sense of freedom they bring me and the teenage sense of fuck you I never got over’. It’s the same mid-twentieth century mentality that you get from politicians when they promote the need for more people to study math and science, because not only is there a space race and we have to prove that consumerist democracy rocks, but because we need all those future engineers to retro-fit these highways into double-decker monstrosities. Ah these old people: it’s enough to wish them all dead, or at least look forward to the future when they’ve left the scene and we can build the world into something more fair and beautiful. They all gave up after Bobby was assassinated, and you can watch all about it on November 23rd. What a contrast. We’re in a situation when eloquent and visionary politicians are now part of a dreamy past, while our present is made up of inarticulate war-mongering folks notable for their lack of vision. That doesn’t seem to me a sign of a healthy state of affairs.
Wishing a certain old-foggie dead is precisely what director Gabriel Range has tapped into. I saw it at a 3:50 matinee with four other people. That is to say, I went alone and there were only three other people in the audience. I’m not sure if that’s worthy of mention – seeing late afternoon matinees on Sunday afternoons isn’t popular enough to be stereotypical. But it also contributed to the feeling that I was watching a secret masterpiece living up to art’s typical response from consumerist culture. They were told to not watch it by the media who readily quoted the likes of Hillary Clinton who thought it was ‘despicable‘. It fits into the thoughts I’ve had lately about Hitler’s famous degenerate art show: Hitler, as John Carey pointed out in his 2005 book What Good are the Arts? was being populist with that exhibit, selling the public their own prejudices toward modern art. But there is a theory about how art is a psychological reflection of the zeitgeist, capturing the spirit of the age, and it seems to be ironic that Hitler, in promoting this to mock it, provided an historical marker for modernist art and highlighted the degeneracy of the society which legitimately elected him in 1933. It was degenerate art made within a degenerate society and Hitler unwittingly held up a mirror thinking it a spotlight. Whenever politicians start making pronouncements on cultural products, one has to think something significant is going on which will need explaining to future generations: that it is an art historical moment.
We’re supposed to all know the game. It’s what makes a film like Death of President possible: string together all the tv documentary clichés for an audience made sophisticated enough by an ambient televised environment to not be confused by the fiction. But of course I say that as someone who saw it with four other people, a film which as far as box-office measures go, did not exist, and as someone with the capacity to reflect on what I saw. As I walked out of the theatre I heard the terrified screams coming from the next theatre-room, looking back I saw the poster for Saw III. Of course Geogre Bush is President in a time when watching violence is what enough people want to do to make it the top film this weekend. You might point out a horror movie is appropriate for Halloween, but Halloween is only appropriate for children. The popularity of violence in whatever manner just highlights our collective immaturity and our inability to grow beyond a mediaeval past, as Bush’s recent moves toward the elimination of habeas corpus show.
JRS wrote: ‘This perpetual motion machine works effortlessly if the flood of images illustrates situations the viewer already understands. That is one of the explanations for the system’s concentration on two or three wars when there are forty or so going on around the world. The others are eliminated because they are less accessible on a long-term basis. Or because the action is less predictable and regular. Or because the issue involved does not fit easily into the West’s over-explained, childlike scenarios of Left versus Right or black versus white. Or because the need for endless images makes television structures unwilling to undertake the endless verbal explanations and nonvisual updates which would be required for the other thirty-seven wars to be regularly presented.’ This was first published in 1992. In the time between now and then, nothing has changed. While the audience have grown more sophisticated, so has television’s methods at keeping the conversation simple. But for me, there is another question, and that is, why? Why is any of this important? Ritual? That alone seems too simple an explanation. I watch TV for the illusion of company and for the occasional good, or big idea.
What is television for? Some will say it’s merely to get us to buy things, but others will say it is to inform. But are we being informed or frustrated? Isn’t anything political on television simply a way of frustrating a democratic citizenship into feelings of impotence when faced with such inane political figures? And isn’t it this sense of frustration precisely what leads to the events depicted in Death of a President? That’s not something you’d get with an uninformed populace, nor perhaps one you’d get if the political machinery actually could register the democratic will of the population. We remain dictated to, told what to think about movies by Hillary Clinton or whatever expert they got hold of at the local university.
I first read Borges’ story, A Weary Man’s Utopia in the winter of 2001 following you know what, when the shit had hit the fan and all the flags were flying. It is the story of a man’s afternoon visit with a fellow in a far distant future. He tells the the fellow
‘In that strange yesterday from which I have come,’ I replied, ‘there prevailed the superstition that between one evening and the next morning, events occur that it would be shameful to have no knowledge of. The planet was peopled by spectral collectives – Canada, Brazil, the Swiss Congo, the Common Market. Almost no one knew the prior history of those Platonic entities, yet everyone was informed of the most trivial details of the latest conference of pedagogues or the imminent breaking off relations between one of these entities and another and the messages that their presidents sent back and forth – composed by a secretary to the secretary, and in the prudent vagueness that the form requires. All this was no sooner read than forgotten, for within a few hours it would be blotted out by new trivialities. Of all functions, that of the politician was without doubt the most public. An ambassador or a minister was a sort of cripple who had to be transported in long, noisy vehicles surrounded by motorcyclists and grenadiers and stalked by eager photographers. One would have thought their feet had been cut off, my mother used to say. Images and the printed word were more real than things. People believed only want they could read on the printed page. The principle, means and end of our singular conception of the world was esse est percipi – “to be is to be portrayed”. In the past I lived in, people were credulous.
I would like to think that in the years since it was published in 1975, people have become less credulous. But the forms of these popular delusions have only aggregated more nuance, so that things are not only read, but heard and seen, and people believe what they read on screens. Or at least the old foggies who are freaked out by Wikipedia seem to think so, severely underestimating the capacities of people to understand the collective nature of the site.
As for politicians being cripples: I recently saw a motorcade come up University Avenue in Toronto and turn onto Queen St – first the chorus of motorbike cops, lead by someone who parked in the center of the intersection, leaping off to perform his ritual in the same manner a parodist would: exaggerated self importance as he held the traffic back, like a romantic hero confronting a tide, and along came the parade of black cars with their two-wheeler escorts. Who was this asshole? I thought. Some celebrity? I still don’t know, although I later heard the Prime Minister was in town. Perhaps it was him. But it seems to me that to parade around in black cars with tinted windows reveals a foolish paranoia: they all think they’re important enough to be assassinated and so hide from us as if we’re all crazy, showing a contempt for the citizenry which is unfair. Leaders shouldn’t hide from us and treat us as if we’re dangerous. But ironically that’s precisely the type of behaviour that leads to the protests they need to be protected from.
1. The essay is found in the book Practical Judgments pages 171-181 and the quote is itself a quote from one of the books he’s reviewing; the orginal thought is attributed to the introduction by David Couzens Hoy and Thomas McCarthy in their 1994 book, Critical Theory.
- Published as an introductory essay for Goodreads 06wxx:1 on 30 October 2006
- 2006–2015 Archived on my blog
- 2015: this version produced with minor copy edits