Cultural Iconography

Success in the arts is a strange thing, coming and going seemingly without rhyme or reason. There is a scene or a movement, a development in the art form, and a whole clutch of artists disappear as the newcomers roll on in. Some fall from grace, out of the limelight, and others are just drop from public life like they were never there. I know it’s something that has troubled me for most of my nascent writing career, which has yet to develop into anything even approaching a public life. Dispensing with the conventional wisdom of worrying about one thing at a time, for the purposes of this article, it’s something worth thinking about. What if you do make it? Will you be a phase, part of a movement that just gets memorialized by the slowly balding and slowly wrinkling? Well, it’s not that simple.

No stratum of art suffers from this anomaly more than the popular, the general. General fiction, pop music, blockbuster cinema, etc. It’s like a circus of the mad, populated with shapeshifters and timebenders, where nothing is real and everything is possible. Trends evolve and stars play with their images as if great leaps can be made in a single bound, and we consume it as part of the vast and seething effluvia of culture. We’re ignorant of the gears ticking beneath the surface. The publicists are kept invisible, producers move unseen. Market analysts shuffle the pieces around the game board like the gods of commodity which they are, their touch as weightless as a feather.

But where does the artist come into this? As a victim, just another moving part? Are they complicit, knowledgeable of their use to the machine, and their longevity is determined by their obedience and their changeability? Some, certainly. And these, I think, are those who go by the wayside. Who drop off, fall off. Pop stars, bestsellers, chart toppers, blockbusters: they’re all somewhat like patron saints. They live in the shadow of true talent and ability, but are given life and adoration by an incurious or disinterested or downright uneducated population. They are the nearest thing, the most easily formed in the mind, like the image of your mother when you’re a child; but, in their time, saints are gods in the minds of the idolatrous.

With anything in life, we all have different starting points. Some are ahead, some are behind. Some are dead last, some are born at the finish line. Hell, they already have boxes for the next race being run by all us schmucks. But I think, or I’d like to think, that with a little elbow grease and a little honesty anyone can make it. The difference is staying. Be a useful enough tool for the market quacks and changing moods in production, and you’ll stay.

Say you believe in what you’re doing, though, and that doesn’t fly. Say you try and, damn it, you just don’t adapt as well as the other guy. What then? You might get kicked to the curb. The proverbial graveyards are filled with the would-be’s and has-been’s that would attest to it. But how many kept true to their word, who walked the line, who stuck to their guns and evolved in their own time and in their own way? Look and I think you’ll find there’s not many. The fates play with us all, and they’ll always hunt you down. But be honest – be natural, as Dickens said on his deathbed – and I think you’ll do alright.

That’s what I tell myself, at least.

Built-in Obsolescence

I want you to imagine a world in which you do not go to work. Work comes to you. Purchasing, buying, selling, manufacturing, everything, comes to you. You don’t come into the office, but take the office with you and leave it wherever you choose to leave it. There are no sprawling corporate headquarters, no skyscraping teeth of the industrial-financial beast. If you sit down outside your home, it will be at a café or on a park bench. The whole world will be your playground, your leisure spot, your backyard, and if anyone is out and about: they will not be working or running errands and what have you, but enjoying life and each other.

There was a time in the industrial age that the scholarship theorized we would soon only have four hour work-days. The theory put forth was one in which automation and mechanization would free the worker, in a sense, granting a full wage for half the work of yesteryear. It was a comforting myth that had the potential to be realized, but instead materialized into an unchanging work-day that produced twice the output for corporate and private stakeholders.

Unions fought hard against capital just to set in stone an 8 hour work-day, let alone any lower. Blood was shed for sick days, and blood may need shed again for sick days; but there remains a brutal caveat: in the past, no matter how bad it got, capital still needed us. Still needed us to man the assembly line, the stockyards, the docks. Fight us all you want, but someone still needs to go down and mine the coal or haul the steel and we knew it. That’s rapidly transitioning.

We’ve reached a point in the modern world that, for some occupations, all the work has been automated or its necessity removed. The borders are tightening on much of the remainder, with service jobs such as fast food and conventional banking being replaced entirely with machines. Developments in AI are on the horizon that will sap the labor market of rudimentary programming and paralegal work, performing the jobs entirely or streamlining them to the point of a skeleton crew. You’re not safe with an advanced degree and 10 years in the financial sector. Your bargaining power on the scale of time and technological advancement is dictated by the specificity of your skill set.

We bought in to the corporate culture too much over the past 30 to 40 years, seeing human value only where humans can add value to something else. If we are not needed, we are useless. The sheen on the windows of the skyscrapers were perhaps too alluring, too bright and mystical with the light of the sun, for us to see the eclipse rounding the corner on the age of labor. Now they’re coming for our healthcare, which most of those undesirables from the manufacturing days depend on. The same forces evicted them from their jobs, and then their homes. The same forces infiltrated and corrupted an electoral system designed to protect the public from them. The same forces enjoy rigged games and enjoy rigging them.

It’s a long trail that only leads back to one place: capital. And capital would be quite contented to operate at the whims of Amazon drones delivering Whole Foods packages, filled with food grown, harvested, reared, and butchered by rudimentary robotics. There’s very little that a sufficiently advanced AI can’t be programmed to do. Smart phones were a myth 20 years ago. Day-to-day, I hold the processing power of entire terminal bank from the 1980’s in the palm of my hand. Maybe more. Machines perform surgery with more precision than a human hand ever could, and they don’t get arthritis.

I want to return to the image I painted at the start of this article. It’s a bright future, a possible future, but at present it isn’t designed to be ours. We don’t exist there, except in some marginalized capacity, hidden away behind walls that shut out the day. We fend for ourselves while we all slowly expire, returning to the sludge from whence we came. It would be among the most unjust existences, so deprived of dignity that we are not afforded even the concept that we should have it at all.

All of this is to say that the future is coming, as it has always come, and will bring with it what the future will, as it has always done. The means of production is a shifting goal post, but it is one we must keep holding fast to the idea of seizing. Labor is obsolete. As a species, we’ve outpaced the need for our numbers and often create work for ourselves to fuel the needs of a system trying desperately, consciously to destroy us and all the while trying to justify its existence to us. In fighting back against it, we should not seek to reclaim labor from capital. I don’t believe that was ever Marx’s intent. We should be fighting to reclaim capital from capital, value from the system, to dictate its meaning and place for ourselves.

It would be a better world to no longer live at the behest of a paymaster, no matter the nobility of the job or the work. It would be a better world if the technologies we’ve built made our lives simpler, easier, instead of more convenient ways to distract us or replace us. The future should not be something we fear to meet, for fear that we won’t be a part of it. We must acknowledge the fruits that technology brings as the fruits of our labor heretofore, not reject them as the product of a system to perpetuate that system. Technology, like labor, can free the individual to pursue their own goals and aspirations, detached from necessity and unbound from livelihood. That should be the future for which we are fighting, not a restructuring of the scraps from the table of profit.

Inception Self-Deception

There’s something I used to be a big proponent of and have only just started getting back into (in terms of writing): ambient music. And I don’t mean some Brian Eno tracks or the OST to Elder Scrolls, which for a long time have been my usual auditory watering holes. Those are still my go-to’s for sitting down to read a good book, work on my maps or notes, but for a while my writing music has evolved from soundtrack to simulation.

A few years ago (read: lifetime ago), I started listening to a dark ambient artist by the name of Atrium Carceri while working on some horror material. And I noticed right away that it wasn’t all drone and bass beats or Latin choruses over eerie strings. Sound effects comprised a fair amount of the instrumentation…buoyed by Latin choruses and eerie strings and drones. But it heightened the experience. At night, a few drinks in you, and you could *almost* convince yourself that you were writing that piece behind a barricaded door in an abandoned house or factory or mansion. It worked shockingly well.

It’s been a while since I’ve tried my hand at horror. I plan to do so again soon. In the interim, however, I’ve turned to using these for my current projects:

Decker’s Apartment in Blade Runner

Spaceship Sleeping Quarters

Ship on Rough, Stormy Seas

…and many more.

If writing were anything like Inception – and it really is, let’s be honest – this would be going a level deeper. Instead of using ambient music to just get you in the mood or what have you, you can now pretend you’re writing a story in the setting of the story you’re writing. How’s that for fucked? And there’s tons of these. A dark room with appropriate lighting (a candle for Fantasy, some weird ass lava lamp for sci-fi) and you’re golden. If you’re really feeling saucy, you can pair these ambient tracks with an appropriate choice of music. I will admit to being enough of a nerd to find the most Blade Runner-y jazz music to play in tandem with Decker’s Apartment Noise and then adjust the volume levels of both until it sounds like I’m in the apartment, but the song is in the background.

I frequently have trouble focusing these days when I get home from work or late-night meetings, etc. and seriously advise anyone suffering from the same to use this to drop you into the mood. And for those really feeling the Blade Runner Blues, a few drops of something that is not tea or coffee into your tea or coffee never hurts. I hope this methodology works as well for you as it has for me.

Godspeed in dreamland, friend-writer.

Update 02: Newer, Broader Horizons…

…without having moved that far. I took a few steps and looked in the other direction. That is to say, I’ve made some changes.

I recently moved for the third time in two years and not because I’m insane, I assure you. If you remember in my last update, the last place wasn’t exactly the best living situation. I got priced out of the one before that by an unfortunate and untimely split with a girlfriend. But now I’m here, and glad to be here. I like this place. Pictures may be forthcoming.  I’ve still got to get settled in, though, so expect a slight lull in posting while I get set up over here.

The second announcement, which is marginally more exciting than the first, is that I now have my very own Patreon! I’ll be putting the link elsewhere on the site, so it’s not lost in the archives, but feel free to head on over and give me enough cold, hard cash to buy a latte or something maybe. I’ll be moving most of my fiction and poetry posts over to that platform. Entry only costs a buck, and you can stay forever. It’s the ultimate club. The party never ends and, hopefully soon, it will be attended by a plenty of the best and brightest lifeforms: you guys, my fans.

I’m moving fast, if I’m not covering much ground, and I have this place to thank for that. Other things, other people, too, of course, but every follower and visitor and view on here helps salve some of that discontent I think every writer feels who practices his art in a vacuum. Where I’m from, there’s not a lot of us. Sometimes it’s hard to remind myself that I’m not on an island or part of a dying breed. Thanks for being that reminder, when I can’t play the part myself.

Mechanisms for Change

If you’re on the political left, and the last 8 years (and the results of the 2016 election) haven’t thoroughly gutted your appetite for good news, you were freaking out like me on June 8. Jeremy Corbyn, the Absolute Boy, did it. Against the predictions of all the pundits and pollsters, for all the purported smarts of Obama-turned-Theresa May campaign manager/head ghoul Jim Messina, he pulled the Labour Party through to an historic victory rivaled only by Tony Blair in the 90’s. Everyone with moral sense breathed a collective sigh of relief. On a balmy June night, for the moment, all hope did not seem lost.

Corbyn’s victory in the United Kingdom has electrified the base, enabling a sense that a socialist government can still take form in the modern world and on an actionable scale. It dispelled the notion that the battle was unwinnable, the system so totally compromised, that there was very little point in performing more than pessimistic commentary on the trainwreck of human civilization in the 21st century. But, here in the States, we shouldn’t be fooled.

We must recognize that electoral politics in the United States is not the same as it is in the United Kingdom, beyond the obvious. The Labour Party began as just that, a political party for the worker. The results of the 2017 special election represent a return to form, rather than a leftward shift. The Democrats, however, much like the Republicans, have a long and confusing history where party lines have been muddled or in some cases even exchanged (mostly due to arguments over whether it was okay to keep an entire race of people under bondage).

Excepting the years of the New Deal on up to perhaps Jimmy Carter, the Democrats have not been the workers’ party. They have been more the workers’ party than the Republicans; but to that I will say, if one man has a knife to your throat and another a gun to your head, are we really going to argue which is worse? Both are existential threats to those caught between them, which increasingly should be taken to mean anyone without the ability to open a savings account.

The lesson we should take from Corbyn’s astonishing upset victory in the U.K. is not that the Democrats should see the value of turning left, or that a major party for socialism is only a primary or two away. Mainstream, and very influential, Democrats have made it abundantly clear that the failures of capitalism are not the fault of the system and that Trump was a fluke. We’ll see how 2020 goes, and 2018 before it, but I can’t foresee any astonishing gains for the Democratic Party in its current form. Any clutch of politicians that remains totally divorced from its constituency, pushes hard against even the slightest left-tinged policies, in a nation daily swallowed up by the excesses of the market and right-wing nationalism, is doomed to sail right into the storm. And, at this point, I hope they fucking do.

We can’t hope to right the ship. Not in time. Instead, the causes of the American left must be championed by new vanguards, who are organized and prepared to take the fight to the other side without reserve or compromise. DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) are at the moment the most numerous and entrenched of the true left in America. Their espousal by Bernie Sanders, their surge in membership following Trump’s election, has elevated them to that position. It remains to be seen if they can continue to capture this enthusiasm, and will be important for them to keep moving with action and political leveraging. I should say us, as I am now a dues-paying member. More than this, though, more than DSA, it will be important for the revivified American Left to guide the flood of popular discontent that is sure to come in the wake of the Democrats’ almost-certain electoral failures in the next two election cycles. If it does not, well, we already have a blueprint for that – and far-right movements in place ready to capitalize on it.

%d bloggers like this: