Sunday, May 24, 2009

Richard Rathwell: Canadian and Other Psychic Waste Bins

photo: Water Street, Vancouver, by John Ward-Leighton

North Americans are terrified by big ghosts and old monsters and I will tell you why. And I will tell you why Canadians are terrified in their own peculiar little way.

And I will tell you why they are frightened of Europe. But like school kids spit on the sidewalk and call names.

Europe in the North American narrative is a place that North America is not. It, with increasingly other places, is where waves of dissonant, victimized entrepreneurial people came and freed themselves from old cultures and class structures to make a new and popular, a more democratic world. Lights on the hill.

The new world was then partially by that myth justified in its new genocidal approaches to previous inhabitants, in its murderous settling of class issues, in its continuation of abhorrence elsewhere rejected as slavery and in its official culture and polis, its ethnic, humanitarian gaps, and, in the culture, its avoidance of philosophical discourse, replacing that with the discourse of experience and utility.

The locations in North America were mythologized differently than in Europe (and those elsewhere). This was done with a transcendentalism of place and with romantic genesis myths involving small and big capitalists, individualists, not heroes, pioneer bourgeois not those bad tribalists and feudalists. The new place became a mythic non-European wonderland free from the passive feudal and free from the bindings of old ideological discourse and selfish rapacious war.

While Europe struggled on with murderous ideologically justified actions to justify market monopolization through conquest, and the suppression of resistance to that, with the corrupt pontifications of political classes, North America developed a discourse in murderous social engineering to continuously re-invent economies it had established through the prolonged retention of slavery, through genocide, continuous war and primitive accumulation. And America did this less bothered by that intellectual resistance that developed in new Europe.

But North America concurrently developed a popular culture increasingly mannerist with depictions of abstractions in sex and violence and now today trivialized with extreme infantilisation based on a virtual universe of cultural and material consumption endlessly repeated with the tiresome litany, the official dissonance that each individual is a unique experience in a homogenous norm.

This cacophony embraces a counter industrial revolution to relocate lower classes in a dislocated world of debt and electronics where the more communication one has, even the more actual, even the more travel, the further one gets from reality, and the further you get away from the ruling class. The more humanity you have, the more you stay in your compound.

And so this now is a world haunted by the ghosts of the actual. And now a consciousness haunted by high cultures of old and the populaces that embraced them. Those from Seville to Angor Wat, Hermes Trismegistus to …..

In ‘Old Europe’ and old elsewheres, while popular culture was being built in North America to saturate the world, especially after the Second World War, to saturate it with a mass, secular, de-politicized consumer culture reflecting U.S. imperial interests, people went on, and intellectuals, artists included in that lives having a strong sense of duty to recover, recover for popular use, and transmit, high cultures, to make new, and continue discovering, including engaging in that of classical antiquity. Some Americans joined them, I know. But most simply developed characterizations and loutish derision.

The exploited classes of Europe including those who were rendered to America as surplus to the requirements of profit, surplus to a conquering polity or surplus to dominant thought, religion and race; those classes had considered critical and renewed access to high culture as liberating. They considered the avant garde of that as their own. The actual revolutionaries did too. The ones who weren’t entrepreneurs substituting themselves for the given political classes.

The workers’ educational associations, mass organizations, the lending libraries, the revolutionary cells sucked it up. The philosophers, the artists gained mass audience. The avant garde nearly always tried to wire that register to the popular. This is an old European thing. A discourse of art, not of stereotypical experience, and between intellectuals and the polis.

In North America instead the so-called avant garde never was, instead charlatans who romanticized the infantile and so infantilized and caricatured the experience of the public world of underclasses. Either that or became a service organization to the bourgeois elite. There was the workerist romanticism of the left, the niggerising of Black culture, the narrative cults of the rogue cop manager/individualist, the party girls of sexual mystery, the outlaws of fashion for ends of meaning, and on and on. Springsteen, Paris, Rappin Death Head Joe.

And wow! Does this create ghosts and monsters. From Poe to the Matrix and on and on, one flies from a scary, just distant, reality. From classical thought.

That is what you twitter about little ones.

In North America committed literature is committed to depiction of types and self. For co-option and consumption.

Art in general in N.A. proposes a disassociation of all spheres of experience, one from the other, each becoming a technical domain and non-convertible (or translatable) from one to another, severing all connections with their development, always in crisis, always instant, always personal to the stereotype. Even if that stereotype is presented as a developmental radicalism it is merely a recreation of the cartoon derivative. (I give you American Art and Picasso).

So among the ghosts (and the ones called to séances by North American academics to try and interpret what for them is gnomic mutterings to their own North American caricatures) , among the ghosts are Picasso and Rimbaud and foremost right now are such as Negi, and Heidegger, Benjamin, Marx. These the North Americans try to explain in terms of their own passive and resentful personal religious sensibilities and not as persons who meant cultural action. Who meant some kind of ferocity and freedom. Not a Peter Pan dress up.

Melville revealed a connection in The Confidence Man between deceit and commodity exchange. Now North Americans love to be deceived commodities, including the artists.

Writing is often fabliaux masquerading as realism. Novelli and plague tales, sparse but with all the blanks filled in for the reader. The sensibilities that were left to be created by Boccaccio and Dante are now supplied in the download package.

Life in discourse is parataxis.

The textual culture in general is no longer a translator's culture, because mono-culturally to the monoculturist that is just not worth doing when a précis for college purposes, a pastiche for a grant, is all that is necessary.

That series of notions is culturally a resurrection of the anti-Christ.

The notion of what a writer is, and does, is now confused with the car salesman or the singing cousin at the wedding. Popular culture becomes a persistent giddiness, nostalgic and stoic in the experiential banality of it all.

And this is what the counter revolution has become! Ekphasis!

The new dogmatics of banality, including the derived ideologists of capitalism and Communism find dynamism eternally foreign to their personal nations. Those that enter the apocalypse with a positive frame of mind towards their assumptions. Abstracting the abyss in their smugness. They rely on the notion of a vast imperial public, the masses, which is permanently submerged in the limpid pool of the narratives of incompetent and inarticulate elites. They see a populace permanently sleazy, stupid and far away.

No . Beyond a radical Gesamtkunstwerk, there will inevitably be passage, a derive, through the ambiances to a detournement.

Capital will be overthrown, and done culturally, especially where it has accumulated to the point where it is only cultural symbol and empty desire.

The psycho-geography will be unmapped and the world revealed. There will be in art a practice of life.

There will be culture where deletion of a poem, rejection of a poet, expulsion and imprisonment, rendition, will not be an attempt that thought and experience so that the person ceases to exist.

Because they won’t, will they?

Now back home.

Canadians are obviously embarrassed and oppressed by their diminutive culture of not being Americans, they are resentful, as the early American artists were by theirs of not being Europeans.

They are haunted by the reality that they have, with the rest of the settler colonies actually, repeated in new ways the worst of European thought and rejected the best, as they have done with other cultures. They suspect they have rejected the development of strategies to liberate that best thought. They suspect they are banal and this makes them silly.

They may wake up to discover they also have recreated the worst of European ideologies and practices and rejected the cures. The final coffin nail was hammered in by the national institutionalizing of banality. Education as socialization, health as maintenance of stupefaction for the workplace and bedroom, and universal commodification in the polis, art as pacification and the mythologizing of the stereotypical “nice” individual, usually done electrically.

Canada is a part of a new global city of Dis. It is static with genres froze to stereotypes, from fantasy not our own. Family dysfunction as horror, class and race dissonance as narrative, beginning middle and end as alternative justification of unformed identities, unresolvable conflicts changing, changing static.

And a derived from stories of minor gods but frozen, frozen. The popular is frozen. The modern is frozen.

The ghosts are reminders in memory and language that those who fled or were expelled from Europe and elsewhere, who were happy to be not European, who defined themselves as that, are now similar old European blockheads or worse.

You name it. Violent, war like, imperialist, oppressive, mystifiers, bread and circus dumb. Everyone a denizen of a world of trouble and pleasure that everyone else can understand. Each in their place. There is no other world. But will they ponder the thinking and art that engaged these things? That is, in Canada, quite literally illegal, and grounds for institutionalization, ostracism and all that sort of European stuff.

The only questions about existence are the officially sanctioned ones which is those one feels good about pondering because they are authorized. Similarly for art.

High culture is a cartoon. Not as it once was…. a revolution. An opposition to the bestialisation of the mind.

In Canada art itself is a delusion, something pretty and topical. The next thing. A heritage of freshly painted totems. A tradition of gibbering and sarcasm in philosophy, in writing, a coke machine. A way to be bad at the back of the class. A way to get laid. Something that for real, only assholes would do.

Canada, you are a new wasteland, tarsanded, pissing yourself, haunted by Gog and Magog, Anubis, Ourobouros, The Hanged Man. The New Things. Woooh. Grrrrr.


  1. It would be useful, I think, to get a little more particular. The generalizations--e.g "In Canada art is delusion" probably means something specific to you, but it sounds awfully empty without those references, as if somehow you have mistaken the Plague of Canadian Poets for artists and developed a theory about that.

  2. These are interesting nihilistic thoughts, these spittings on the sidewalk. There is insight in them, but they lack respect for those who, like you, are doing what they can. This damnation is revealing, and maybe a step toward help, but they do not provide help. For example:

    "Writing is often fabliaux masquerading as realism."

    How do you tell this type of writing from truth? Is writing automatically, ipso facto, a mask for the real? If it looks like a totem of yore, should one automatically and summarily discard it as cartoon? I think not, if you're looking for what the author is trying to say, as I had to do to read you.

  3. As editor of this blog, I'd have to defend Rathwell's piece by remarking that it seems to me clearly a kind of playful though angry artifact of nihilism, and is meant to energetically generate questions more than to provide immediate answers. The solution cannot always be developed simultaneously with the statement of the problem,the cure alongside the preliminary diagnosis. More specificity as the argument unfolds in future would help,of course.

  4. As inevitably one of the plague of Canadian Poets, I am nonetheless interested in what this piece is getting at, although it never does. Perhaps some more specific examples regarding Canadian culture in parallel with the early Americans. vis-a-vis The Europeans. One of the most apparent examples for me is the mirroring effect in Canadian media, politics and media that reminds me of Derridean paradoxes about the doppelganger trying to fit in with what may be deemed a superlative effort at culture yet while also trying to distinguish oneself as different, as unique, as national.