Friday, October 24, 2008

Oh, what a tangled web we surf...

This post has undergone such transformative upheavals since inception (over a week ago) that I scarcely recognize its origins. It was to be a simple observation on the way a phrase or a scrap of sequential words can lodge in the brain as securely as any Manilow-penned, Mad Ave jingle of the ‘60s and cling there like sockburrs gotten from a brisk woods-walk: little organic passengers that you aren’t even aware of until you move to remove your shoes.

What happened, along the way, was that misconceptions, disinformation, ignorance and faulty reasoning were challenged, and then illuminated, by the most innocuous of research tools: Wikipedia and Google. This has happened before, but as I had never had a blog before, it would remain as an unspoken component of a diarist’s scribbles or a penitent’s confession, rather than an open admission. But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “Publish your underwear!” So here are the long-johns and the shorts of it.

At the beginning, the story would run like this: a serendipitous alignments of the celestial powers with astral navigation achieved by triangulation: a recollection of a snippet in the interior of a performance art happening/play handout this summer, then a 2005 book review wherein the author’s curious erudition caught my fancy, and an article from a strewn Times section which fell open to just the right page at exactly the right moment. And then onto a glib summary.

It didn’t get there.

The genesis of this came from attendance at the show of an ensemble called Radiohole. As usual, it was something of a mash-up: this time between the myths of Carrie Nation and Kenneth Anger. (Interesting enough, but not germaine to the subject.) That aside, as these rather radical ensembles are wont to do, they included, in their playbill, some head-twister quotes to set the mind awhirl (as much as the free draft beer they distributed), one of which was attributed to Karl Rove.


"You live in what we call the reality-based community. You believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernable reality. That's not the way the world works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality--judiciously, as you will--we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

It was so odd (well, under the circumstances…) that I couldn’t even recognize, immediately, what it was that I was reading. But I did keep it around.

The book review was only half-recalled from a dashed-off note and the assumptions therein missed quite a bit of the necessary data for its proper interpretation. The author is Eliot Weinberger and his book was What Happened Here: Bush Chronicles. My first reaction was that this was another of those "tell-all" confessions of who-knows-what-goes-on-behind-closed-doors-type thangs in which a White House insider, in false modesty, offer the sort of diary an average man might make “who just read the newspapers.” However, something just didn’t ring on that line. Anyone who makes comparisons of Radical Islam to youth culture, correctly interpreting suicide bombers as anti-heroes, and observes that the 9/11 hijackers pulled off a piece of political theater beyond the wildest wet dreams of the Situationists, displays a depth and sophistication no less than William F. Buckley, Jr., and an erudition no knee-jerk pundit has ever approached. So, having no previous knowledge of him, Wikipedia gave me a whole new perspective: a translator of Octavio Paz and Borges, Eliot was actually a poet in his own right and no wonk-turned-turncoat, West-Winger or even Right-winger but, possibly, much more a philosophical southpaw than I. This made me more curious as to exactly why he would use this particular term--"reality-based community"--this particular way.

So, before going any further, it is best to clear something up. A portion of the quote, applied to my (and yours, I assume) favorite search engine, yielded a vast number of URLs, one of which I append here. It is actually from a New York Times Magazine article from October 17, 2004, “Without a Doubt,” By Ron Suskind, who attributes it to “a senior White House adviser.” (Now WHY would the art-gang attribute it to Rove? Perhaps it was later revealed? A fair assumption, but that I do not know. But I present this as a further caution as to why one must never give authority to secondary sources without the merest, absolute-least fact-checking. Replication of misinformation on the web has turned a comedy of errors into a farce, and hence, a tragedy. In point of fact, with this admission, you can see that I have had to change my opinions on my proofs/evidence no less than three times in the course of writing this piece. That alone should say even more than I am. Will I still hold the same position as at the beginning? Will I ever get to the point—period? Does this matter less than a fart in a flaw…and do I even know what that means? Stay tuned!!!)

So when Weinberger went on to refer to those (erroneously presumed to be in the White House) who still believed "that solutions emerge from the judicious study of discernable reality," but that increasing unreality of the events (say, the Iraq War and its attendant justifications) threaten to overwhelm this "judicious study of discernable reality", I was with him as far as I could go down the path where cherry-picking information leads to delusion and, hence, a form of madness. It is just that oh-so-formal language which had me puzzled. It appears that, in his reading, this is a term referring to a school of poets called Objectivists, which, by my reading, has nothing to do with Ayn Rand's Objectivism. (However, I would be most happy to hear comments to the contrary as, for all its worth again, Wiki can be a tad short on abetting such distinctions.) Weinberger mentions another poet named Charles Reznikoff, who had late fame in his life for a collection called Testimony--some sort of prose/poems culled from his day-job of writing abstracts of legal verdicts for the published reports of law decisions (used for precedence in cases before the bar). I've actually read this stuff for classes, and it might be said to be the ultimate economy in enconmiums on style and substance.

If he is correct, then, or even in a ballpark less amorphous than Ebbets’ Field, one has to wonder how the hell “Rove” (or whoever) came up with it! From what matrix of learning of “the Canon” of Western Lit. 101, plus a philosophical bent plus rhetorical skill, emerged a mind which could put these concepts of such innocuous and seemingly abstract reasoning into the framework of such a stone-solid, stolid pragmatist?

So, yet another search for any chain of logical possession led to this thread. And that as the article at the heart of the matter was the source of a discussion that had gone on long before my intersection of sets. Here I saw, for the first time, the full range of opinion crystallize into an articulation. What makes it even more amazing is that the Wiki sidebar on the subject also includes a further reference suggestion for “truthiness”—a Steven Colbert neologism!

Clearly, instead of stopping at a storefront of shopworn clich├ęs, I had stumbled into some opiate-of-the-people den of ubiquity!

Now that I understood it was all dependent upon what part of the quote one chooses. So then, another phrase got to faze the face and the number of hits ran the gamut from the reddest radical (and I use it in the classic sense of commie-symp, not the “red state/blue state” reference) to the most gleefully vehement reactionary (a site called Little Green Footballs, for which I have no explanation). The logic of the search engine then becomes a mirror of my consciousness, detailing a precise reasoning this resonated in my cranium, where the faint elementary education memory dredges up Set Theory, and more, back to the ‘80s, when a bunch of drop-outs could hang out all night and talk trash, and once in a while touch on something substantive, like Mandelbrot’s fractals or Dark Matter Theory…or Venn Diagrams, where two disparate geometric spheres intersect a third to create an area of common properties.

And this brings up the Sunday NYTimes, October 19, 2008 article “Even ‘Survivor’ Is Looking Mortal.” Yes, it will come as no surprise that “reality-based community” was the jackpot of URLs, but, strangely, not a one of them about television.

What struck on first read was that, indeed, the first reality game show hit the airwaves just as George Bush was starting his job. Phrases from the article sprang out: “…diverse cast of strangers, pit them against each other, and expel a contestant at the end of each episode (1)…a proven way to keep costs down (2)…most ad time is sold in advance (3)…the task isn’t to expand the brand, it’s to manage the decline (4)…every three days a contestant would be sent home (5)…the winner, after 39 days, would receive $1 million (6)…when the first season ended, more than 20 million were watching, second only to the Super Bowl (7)…then came Big Brother, the Apprentice, the Amazing Race, American Idol, The Osbournes, Joe Millionaire, Temptation Island, Dancing with the Stars…” This does not boggle the mind as much as sadden the heart, with so much utter mundanity being fobbed off on a willing and eager audience. What is worse, though, is to consider how much the course of these things actually replicates (adapted for scale) the progression (or descent) of the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary braches of government for the past eight years. Just look at it: (3) was the campaign that got this outfit into office, secure in the knowledge that what they paid for it would reap huge dividends in the end, (1) is the whole rancid bunch of sleazeballs and toadies, basically protecting their turf (2) while the world crumbles about them and, at the end of their tenure, by public shame and humiliation or scandal or pre-set exit strategy, escaping to the private sector (5) where their contacts and lobbying skill would be most appreciated (6), (7) was what got them in the second time, and (4) is about the exact state of the Republican Party at this moment.

But the self-delusional part where the overlap is the greatest comes when the journalist says: “Survivor is a show about characters, about heroes and villains, about loyalty and duplicity.” He discusses this with the show’s creator, Mark Burnett, who cites his source as “Hero With A Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell, and adopting “classic storytelling styles and devices that ‘just work’.” One of these is the tribal councils, “alluding to sacrificial ceremonies…illuminated by torchlight…excommunication…rebirth and hope…” When Mr. Burnett says, self-consciously, “You may think I’m nutty,” the writer re-enforces his authority by saying: “It’s not. It is evidence that the show’s storytelling style is layered and novelistic, complete with historical analogies, perhaps demonstrating why it has prospered.”

Ah. It is also possible that small simians might be expelled from my nether regions, however, I am prone to lack conviction of that eventuality transpiring.

You could describe the same thing as a beach party set designed by Tiki Gods LLC and catered by Luau-se-Yer-Lunch Services that devolves into a clash of personality disorders over petty slights, actively encouraged by adult supervision, as one bitter scene after another with nasty guttersnipes forces members to hightail it to the far dunes. This isn’t storytelling. It is, in point of fact, no different than a series of scavenger hunts held by some crazy psychiatrist for his encounter group therapy regulars.

Well, if I am to be typed a “playa-hatah” (if that is the standard ebonic rendering), then let it be for the real game I oppose. It was said, at the time, the failure to detect the 9/11 plot was caused, chiefly, by “a lack of imagination.” This particular paucity appears to be a plague upon the populus at present. And no, I cannot lay the blame at the door of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, nor at whatever waterway ferry deposits the next sacrilegeial dumbs at the altar of commerce, F.O.B.

No, it would have to be no less than the whole junk culture represented by this faction of factoid-factotums which passes on fiction for fatuousness. It has manufactured consent the same way any totalitarian regime would: tell people what they want and give it to them in large doses, shove it down their throats until they can’t live without it. It doesn’t matter if they thought it was good or bad or were indifferent to their presentation: it is going to be part of your life so you’d better enjoy it! Does that sound too bitter? Maybe attributing too much power to an entertainment? It’s only that you can’t miss the point that it is all cost/benefit analysis; no matter what they claim about “creativity,” what they are thinking is “quantity”. This is the same reasoning you feed slop to hogs. And I’m not no high-falutin’ aesthete neither! (Just got our 46” flat-screen Bravia LCD today and I can’t wait to gel-&-chill a weekend with LOTR DVDs on that baby!) My love of Pop Culture is, however, pretty much stuck in the past, wherein quality was, if not elevated, at least eccentric, slightly twisted even. And always more fun to discover fetishes on your own (preferably in the privacy of your bedroom, with the door locked). Unfortunately, with mass marketing on one side and niche marketing on the other, the possibility of developing any independence of thought or taste not already figured into the 24hr e-mailing style becomes moot, at best. If you weren’t typecast today, we’ll copy your psychic DNA by interpreting your browser cookies with our nominal, under-the-radar spyware and the tracks of your clicks.

Wait a sec. What did I just say? That I couldn’t hold ad sales as the villain? Isn’t that what I just said?

Not quite. It is more about the VERY FIRST IDEA HERE: “reality-based communities,” or something close to it. There are a lot of young folks today have yet to have an un-mediated experience, and by that I mean: Without Media. It is as pervasive as drugs once were, in days of yore. That was a time when you wouldn’t even begin a project or painting/poem/song, or a journey without getting high. Nowadays, who would go ANYWHERE without a cell phone…phone-camera—uh—phone/camera/gamecard, oh, and the iPod. Laptop. PSPII, for the road…etc. As to whether or not that one is superior to the other, let’s leave that for subsequent generations to assess. The point is, the former were about as individual as experiences could get, a lot of which depended upon which senses you could employ and how long you could focus them on what you thought was why when where was… (You get the idea.) You got a perspective that would be, if you were capable of sharing it in any way, shape or form other than hysterical laughter, weeping in abject despair or utterly agape with agape, you were certainly going to have as good a time telling it as you did experiencing it and maybe come up with something so ‘out there’ as to be unique unto itself, one-of-a-kind, sine-qua-non motherfucker. Or total crap. The dosages, however, were finite, unless the self-destructive impulse took over and turned them into addicts. But when you’ve got a Blackberry/Sidekick/PDA-fill-in-the-blank, you’re not addicted, you’re just “plugged-in” and “hot-wired” and “up-linked” and—uh—well, other stuff, aren’t you?

And that reminds me of something that was, according to the opinions of many sage reviewers, both a symptom of the former AND the latter from that era. It was from the Firesign Theater’s album entitled “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers.” Without context (take too long…too many drugs, too…) it was the strangled cry of a disturbed teenager at a More Science High pep rally: “What is Reality?”

So, ok, they didn’t last very long though, did they? All that “free love” and peace signs and attire not even seen at most Gay Pride parades these days? (And those Mary’s have style.) Outside of the music (which, in the land of blogspot.com I needn’t underscore), the only “countercultural” references you see are when Woodstock anniversaries roll around. (Last time I heard a Castenada quote was…nada.) By the reasoning of the seasons of Survivor standard, one might assume that popularity and endurance equals quality.

And it is this that brings up the final, ultimate point of all this. The critique of the “reality-based community” by the “Rove”-like aide included as part of a, say, social commentary by post-Brechtian-4th-Wall-smashers, the erudite wordsmith parsing this subject to reflect an altered state-of-the-nation speech, and the TV Producer’s estimation of his mutant baby—all are born of an appreciation of Life (capital L) as a manifestation of the iron rule of “Social Darwinism.” The puppet master sees the same world as the watcher of the glass-walled ant farm as does Mr. Survivor-of-the-fittest: a brutal competition based in humankind’s lowest primal urges, fears, lusts, the dominance of power over all and a complete loathing and contempt for anything which does not crush all before it in its naked ambition to succeed.

Hey! Ever seen Leni Reifenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”? (Well, maybe you’ve heard Devo’s title cover…) Ever read about “Mein Kampf”? (The movie was better, true…) And in “Brave New World,” there’s no question that being an Alpha means never having to say you’re sorry.

(Couldn’t resist the previous. Call it an aside, a stage whisper, if you want…)

When you read a lot of Steven Jay Gould, you aren’t guaranteed to get smarter, but you could do a lot worse. That being said, his discourses cover more subjects than I ever touched upon in my most hedonistic, headlong plunge into impulsive, frenzied link-clicking, convincing me (at least) that he is the kind of polymath best typified by the tagline of the be-knighted supermarket checkout counter tab that proclaims: “Enquiring Minds Want To Know.” So if you find the following a bit biased, it is because there is more study behind it than anything else heretofore inscribed.

What Paleontology relies on is fossil record, or, if you will, a Reality that once was. A variation on that is Evolutionary Biology, which is, depending on where you start and end, Reality which is going on right now. Ok. So then, make this the context for “reality-based communities” to “judiciously study” for “solutions to emerge from (the) discernable,” and everything else becomes window dressing. That’s how Darwin came up with his three-part “theory” (which is closer to a Law than anything else, and also open to revision like any good statute would be...in a sane society—laws that evolve with the culture) of natural selection, adaptation and inherited traits. That SJG could come along and revamp it with a tack-on of punctuated equilibrium (which means that, more or less, evolution might move in fits and starts, like have a long period where nothing goes on, then a brief period where catastrophic changes take place) only means that it works as good as Einstein’s General Relativity “theory”.

(That was the last digression, I swear…)

When SJG, then, writes that the whole “Social Darwinism” idea had nothing to do with Origin of the Species, coined by a Victorian philosopher named Herbert Spencer and used to justify the most inhumane aspects of Industrial Revolution Capitalism. Which could be one way that it came into the sphere if the aforementioned “top White House aide.”

But enough of me. I’d rather end this with a cop from the previously cited website (or bulletin board—do they still call them that? Chat group? What is the word?) which sums up my views pretty well.

“Artists and writers have the luxury of creating their own reality. Scientists and statesmen do not. Reality -- empirical reality, a reality independent of the observer -- is the terrain in which even history's greatest actors move. They don't make it up -- they judiciously study it every bit as much as do intellectuals, a less ambitious group.

”The neoconservatives are attempting to make up reality to suit their fantasies, not study a reality that is in fact independent of them. That is the epitome of arrogance. It is the hubris for which the Greeks believed that the gods punished mortals. That is why in the end, like the gods punished mortals who overreached, reality will defeat the neoconservative.”

Yeah. Hubris. And Hamartia, the fatal flaw. The play’s still the thing in which to catch the conscience of the king; not in moronic challenges and…

Say, I’ve got a better tag to bag it, another I found under the last cited…which makes me wonder if I’ve stumbled into an alternate universe where The Church of The Subgenius has become gospel and Bob Dobbs is the pipe-smoking-hydra-headed avatar son of Kali and Brahma the Destroyer. (Ok. So maybe Colbert IS Bob Dobbs. Ever thought of that? Huh??)

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