Thursday, January 30, 2014

No Accidents of a Down

This is a follow up to this, which was a response to this. That second link is an essay about art tumblr The Jogging's switch from, basically, well-photographed visual puns with titles to conspiracist images relying on certain constants (an MS Paint aesthetic and far right rhetoric being the most relevant).

Here's another thing that The Jogging, and any theory of the conspiracy theory that sees it exclusively as the terrain of systemic thought with capitalism as its ultimate horizon (which I have been as guilty of as anyone), rather than (as I'm now attempting to formulate it) a discourse of totalization that runs parallel to capitalism as its own totality: System of a Down.

I think it's fairly uncontroversial to position SoaD as operating within the broader conspiracist framework, even if looking at the lyrics to any individual song doesn't capture that element of their broader performance or place within the cultural landscape at the turn of the millennium. Which is kind of the point; recent emphasis on conspiracies like Truthers and Birthers positions the conspiracist as a member of the radical right, and The Jogging organizes itself within this moment. But the aesthetics they adopt are inflected by the strategies they employ; so while there are still a large amount of the sort of narrative image macros that they are creating being made in earnest (although this is more a legacy of Birthers, a group who they haven't yet explicitly engaged to my knowledge, than the Truthers at whom much of their content is aimed, at least based on my peripheral engagement with 9/11 Truth sites and discourse around 2004-2006) the epiphanic juxtaposition of the familiar (discussed last time), inherited from photography and providing the explicit link between previous and current practice, necessarily temporalizes the images. The amateur graphic design is a thing of forums and Web 1.0; it's very 90s.

If you've ever gone back and listened to some of the (broadly categorized) nu-metal (and its orbit) from the (very) late 90s through the first half of the 00s, and if you're me, you'll have been struck by the ease with which the vocalists switch between what seem to be legitimate leftist critique with stunningly obtuse conspiracism. SoaD is an obvious example, as is Rage Against the Machine, but even groups like Incubus or Papa Roach were getting in on it. There were a lot of things going into this, from the near-universal adoption of disaffection that apparently undercut their critiques to the conspiracist framing to the fact that at the end of the day it was all an industrial investment in the production of goods which captured a market who repaid the investors handsomely, of course, but there was also the experience of knowing shit was fucked up, figuring it probably had a cause, and then hearing, say "Prison Song." It's a pop song about prisons that suggests an analysis, and the shadowy "they" was there too. It was, for me at least, a supplement to Tupac, whose embodiment of his dramatic persona was at least as important as his actual music, and Outkast, whose Bombs Over Baghdad I didn't then understand but fucked if I wasn't desparate to be able to, and, well, we'll get to the real embarrassing shit in a minute. The point though was that at the same time as the slow death of Web 1.0 began (I'd peg it as ramping up from 2002-2005, beginning to truly transition around 2006), including those latter-day Napsters (the most famous, I believe, being Kazaa), was a moment when the aesthetic of conspiracy theory was firmly embracing a rhetorical mixed-leftism, especially in music. P.L.U.C.K. is still a bit of a weird song to listen to.

There's a longer relationship between conspiracist thought and aesthetics and various (generally relatively weak, admittedly) anticapitalist political positionings. Obviously the history of right wing conspiracy theory is much stronger and more prominent, given, well, Hitler. And most species of the JFK Assassination conspiracy, which is the general template for American conspiracies that don't involve lizards. But there are also things like Robert Anton Wilson & Robert Shea's The Illuminatus! Trilogy which, while on some level satirizing them, produce a convincing argument for the fecundity of the conspiracy as site of mobilization against the mode of production - even if that mobilization takes the shape of Hella Hippy Sex and Dope Submarines (in every sense).

The point, though. Or, actually, first, let's talk about Truthers.

Here's a thing you don't see acknowledged often; at the seed of the 9/11 Truth movement was a pretty simple sentiment: Fuck Bush. Or, more fancifully, Bush is Hitler. The contemporary prevalence of the "false flag" narrative is, as far as I can tell, a direct consequence of the legion of forum posters around 2004 who looked to the Reichstag Fire to explain what to them seemed to be clearly the actions of a government, as synecdochized by its leader, who had manipulated the spectacularization of democracy to become the illegitimate most powerful man in the world, and whose actions were primarily seen as curtailing civil liberties and cozying up to various Big Money interests. Obviously I'm being selectively attentive here, and there were other competing narratives and even these claims were less revolutionary and (way) more racist in their content than I'm framing them, but this narrative also tends to get subsumed into later developments within the group (primarily its post-07 complete subsumption into libertarianism, which had always been large, and even dominant, within the discourse, but never explicitly hegemonic until that point).

One way to think of it would be as nearly identical to Eminem's video for "Mosh," in which the rhetoric (both spoken and visualized) of insurrection, albeit one mediated through celebrity and animation and a whole host of other shit, is ultimately captured by the institutional mechanism of electoral politics. Whether you treat the Truther subsumption into the Tea Party as authored internally (like "Mosh") or externally (Koch Brothers), it remains the same; impassioned conspiracists, whose mode of being is fundamentally against the existing structure of power in a way that draws on opposition to historical right wing states, end up coopted or pushed out.

To which one might reasonably respond: well, then, it seems the idea of conspiracy theory as "an inability to think, in the current instance, outside the horizon of capitalism" is perfectly apt. And depending on your understanding of how capitalism works, maybe my conceptualization of conspiracy theory doesn't change that at all. That's cool, I'm still working on it. Maybe I'll change my mind. But back to The Jogging. But first we'll have to take another brief detour through System of a Down.

The conspiracist rhetoric isn't just in the shadowy other that haunts things like "Prison Song." It's actually largely a consequence of their environmnentalism, more than anything else. I don't think SoaD actually explicitly reference chemtrails at any point, but they were constantly going on about Recognizing Natural Beauty, the destructiveness of industrial production (which was hella weird to me even as like a 14 year old or whatever), and all that. It, like basically every environmentalist movement, ranges from the militant to the thinly-veiled fascist, but the real effects were its tendency to organize. Under the naturalist rubric came the New Ageist peaens to freeing your mind, which roped the calls for revolution to general guru bullshit. They were the key to the conspiracization of the whole because they were what transformed it into a totality. The whole damn world was pretty, and you can still see that if you look; and I know I said earlier that drugs were a systematic function of the prison industrial complex, but they also free your mind so! And addiction's bad?

Am I begging the question by suggesting that The Jogging's artistic endeavours ought to confirm more closely to my personal experience with conspiracy theory? Sure, probably, yeah. But I guess we can finally actually talk about that.

As I said before: this is all relevant context because of the aesthetic production going on on the tumblr. I'm willfully ignoring the bulk of Horning's argument, that this is interesting because it is an attempt to articulate a certain methodology of artistic practice native to the internet (resting on the "accidental audience" of Brad Troemel) and the conceptual juxtaposition of the internet as system with conspiracy theory as systematized thought/production. I'm ignoring it not just because I largely think The Jogging (and Troemel's essay) sucks, or because I want to suggest to them a way to better their practice. I'm ignoring it because I think its a bafflingly dehistoricized claim, operating exclusively at the level of squashing together two metaphors haphazardly and considering that an argument.

Here's the thing: this shit's flaccid. It's operating according to the principles of the laziest photographic fine arts, its aesthetically rooted in a historical moment it refuses to grapple with, and its apparent goal is the extrapolation of art to subjects outside of the (to use the term inappropriately promiscuously) gallery while also de-gallerizing the gallery subject? On top of that, it's premised on an idealization of the internet that's not so much TINA subjecthood as pure corporate fantasy in press release form gone ontology. To quote Horning again: "How does one productively think about the inability to think? How do you imaginatively confront the apparent waning of imagination that the conditions of artistic production online tends to instigate, where the circulation of an image begins to trump its content, and serial production militates against patiently crafted masterworks?"

I'm just not sure that the answer to any of those is to double down on the weakest aspects of an already dull project, I guess.