By Phil Rockstroh, John Steppling, and Hiroyuki Hamada,
Phil Rockstroh: I awoke, in our family’s flat in Munich, Germany, lashed and buffeted by thoughts of massive, Climate Change-strengthened storms, and jotted down the musings below, and then was seized by thoughts of the means terrifying storms, storms that deliver the vast, monstrous message of the indifferent, terrible fury of nature’s compensatory response to human hubris also serve to deliver, by necessity, one back to the humbling imperative of collectivity. Thus I thought I would sent my thoughts to my friends, playwright and essayist John Steppling and artist and essayist Hiroyuki Hamada, both online, and, in graced moments, in the flesh, face to human face friends and comrades, to solicit their thoughts on the subject. — Phil Rockstroh:
My own will begin the dialog:
Great storms were, to Rilke, the metaphoric fodder of angels personified:
“What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great.
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.”
Harvey and Irma et. al. should be regarded as such storms.
“When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.”
Rilke reveals there exists sublimity at the heart of our sense of powerlessness. Yet, we are prone to rage, evincing Lear-like obtuseness, at realities greater than ourselves. Yet a storm’s fury resounds with the ancient voice, the ancestral canticles, the ego-sundering songs of the gods of nature that we ignore at our peril. Harvey and Irma thunder an angelic opus. No, we are not in the presence of the white linen enswathed, downy winged Angels of Kitsch of the Victorian imagination nor the lavender-tinged, lambent angels of crystal-clutching New Agers, angels as celestial eunuchs, arriving announced by lilting, upper key music and proffering celestial-borne Best Friends For Eternity (BFFE) requests.
Instead, these are angels, redolent of ancient brine, who know our true names. The apprehension of their presence will unloose a internal, sonic sound that will blast the ossified forms of habitual thought to silt. The approaching storms, paradigm decimating angels, have much to tell us. But: If we remain belligerently obtuse, the choice will, increasingly, and in direct proportion to the growing intensity of the storms themselves, place the whole of our species in peril. Conversely:
“Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.” (excerpted from The Man Watching, Rainer Maria Rilke)
John Steppling: I think that often the discussion of politics leaves out any consideration of art and culture. I think there are many reasons for this. And I think discussions of culture are necessarily very complex. And that is perhaps the first issue, in fact. I was recently on social media where I quoted Marcuse on tolerance. One comment derided Marcuse for his cultural marxism. It seemed a given (this was Im pretty sure a US University student) cultural marxism was somehow bad. Now I do know many on the left who feel the same. And certainly in the case of French post war thinkers, this has some validity. There was a turn against direct materialist analysis, and against class analysis. On the other hand there were, at least in the fifties and sixties, still some very cogent voices writing in French. Not to mention the prescient analysis of Guy Debord and the Situationists. But I find today in the US, two ..or make that three…overriding aspects to public discourse.
One is aggression. It is a snarky and sarcastic and hostile populace. Two is white privilege. And you see already that they overlap. Third is a distrust of art and the non instrumental. This is American masculinity, but it seems to have leaked into much feminist thought as well. We could also discuss the turn toward what has been called Identity politics.. But for now, I have found that most of the educated white bourgeoisie feel under siege — psychologically certainly. And white hegemony has meant a kind of inability to let go of the idea that white people always make the decisions. Now, when psychoanalysis travelled to North America it changed, and the radical political sensibility of those first generation Freudians was replaced with no politics at all. And psychoanalysis gradually became adjustment therapy and worse, a part of the therapeutic culture of narcissism. Russell Jacoby’s book Social Amnesia remains the best overview of this, I think. In any event the professionalizing of art and cultural production began a long gradual process of excluding radical voices and then even working class voices. Since theatre is what I know best, and what i do, still, the rise of MFA programs coincided with the removal of disruptive voices. And soon a strange disfigured bureaucratization of culture had taken hold.
Off off Broadway was the last gasp for american theatre. If anyone can name even one significant play to have been developed in MFA programs, or by MFA graduates in big regional theatres, I’d like to know of it. I was on the tail end of that movement. And i saw the change. And I saw, too late, the reality that those not of the correct class and background, would be exiled. Today, there is also this pernicious instrumentalism in thought. Perhaps it has to do with the fact people don’t read. Nobody reads as they did even forty years ago. Even I don’t. My reading is more fragmented and while I read just as much, it feels mediated by electronic technology. But the real point is what this has done to ideas of community. The instrumental logic of Capital, of profit, can only live in an environment cleansed of Dionysian energy.
I suspect it is very hard not to succumb to some degree of paranoia today. Old leftists i know are often borderline paranoid. And I wonder if this isn’t part of the hostility to antifa that one sees. For all the failings of that movement, one that is decidedly not monolithic, and one deeply infiltrated by agent provocateurs, it is disturbing to see the attacks by the left. And for some it is simply that antifa remains a non organization. Its not a party, its has no leader and no dues and no manifesto. And I think, so? Are they the enemy? There are serious activists working under that umbrella. And sure, they have regressive ideas on foreign policy. But that is where one must educate.
But the rise of the white supremacists is quite real. And it is being helped along by the authority structure and police. It is the authority structure and police. The enemy is the growing police state. The US has been fascist for a while. Since the fall of the USSR. The demise of the greatest communist nation left a massive psychic hole. And the fascism went to an acute state after 9 11. Maybe even before, under Clinton. One cant minimize Clinton’s crime bill. All of these factors shape how one looks at one’s life as an artist. Theatre is very hard to do today. Very hard. I once had companies and we did shows for 500 dollars. There were cheap theatre spaces and it was experimental and often expressed something of a working class vision. That is all gone. Impossible today. The only place to write and exist is in MFA programs and MFA programs are tacitly domesticating. They may not insist one write this or that, but they exert a stealth pressure to adhere to expected themes and tropes and politics. Identity politics loom very large there. Multiculturalism became a tool of the oppression it was meant to correct.
I began theatre hugely influenced by Tadeusz Kantor and Cricot. And also by Grostowski. And Peter Brook at Bouffes du Nord. It is impossible to imagine anything of that sort existing in the US. Herbert Blau, one of the last american voices on theatre worth listening to, suggested american theatre artists knew no theory. But it is deeper than that. They are hostile to theory. The ascension of entertainment has eclipsed art that has any political resonance. Where is Brecht today? Hell, where is Pinter? The answer is that perhaps some such radical vision exists still on German stages (Handke and Muller) but none in North America. England and Ireland perhaps too, have managed to keep theatre from total suffocation. And for me this has meant the death of a certain dream. There will be no collective arts for theatre. I will write alone and that is all any playwright can do today. Certainly any U.S. playwright.
So that psychic hole that came with the end of the USSR, and with the reunification of Germany, and then with the targeted destruction of Yugoslavia and the war against the Sandanistas and Cuba and Venezuela and now Syria….all of these assaults on humaness left culture rudderless. Art retreated into fashion and decor and entertainment. Painting retreated from Abstract Expressionism and the Mexican muralists and even from the best of minimalism, and into zombie formalism — as it has been termed. Gallery power consolidated. Curators began to act like movie producers. Like studio executives. And people suffering this, often, unconscious wound, retreated into post modernism and into simply the screen addictions of the last two generations. And this is part of the fabric of horror we feel, I think. Climate change. I thought of Melville today and Olson;s great book on him, and western expansion, and colonialism. And somehow the storms Irma and Harvey feel allegorical. Irma is the size of France. Shakespeare too, with this quote from Coriolanus:
“They ne’er cared for us yet: suffer us to famish, and their storehouses crammed with grain; make edicts for usury, to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome act established against the rich, and provide more piercing statutes daily to chain up and restrain the poor. If the wars eat us not up, they will; and there’s all the love they bear us.”
There are wounds in America that have never been treated. Slavery and genocide of indigenous people, right at the top. Puritanism and Manifest Destiny. If a country cannot admit to itself even a part of this, then of course they will project this sickness outward. Do Trump or Obama or the Clintons or Bush or Rumsfeld or any of them need more money? What is it they cannot have? So its not purely about profit. Its a kind of sadism and sickness. And we all feel it. I see it in good writing today, where it exists anyway…the stunted interrupted line, the quality of not being able to breathe, the sense of guilt and repugnance and self loathing. For nobody escapes.
Phil Rockstroh: Yet we attempt to escape by means of the ersatz eros of social media. So many hours, at present, lived out psychically shuffling through the social media’s Pixel Inferno, an endless archipelago of pits inhabited by, with rare exceptions, gibbering, snarling, spiteful, self-obsessed, vanity-lousy imps of the collective mind.
Through it all, social media is a reflection of the mental architecture of the non-virtual world. Of course, the content, all too often, is repellent, banal, angst-inflicting, and enervating, yet, in this way, it is a reflection of the hyper-commodified, soul defying, late capitalist shlockscape.
But mortifying as the imperative is, to paraphrase Federico García Lorca, one must attempt to approach the beating heart of the monster of the world.
Lorca besieged “What of the duende?” Now, in our age of social isolation, one must implore: What of participation mystique — to wit, the activity that summons duende.
The deification of happiness is a capitalist/consumer con job. The pursuit of happiness amounts to chasing a mirage. Happiness is, the, occasional, byproduct of the participation mystique inherent to life itself.
What other animal on the planet is compelled to pursue happiness? All the ones who are not destroying this life-bestowing planet in a desperate search for a happiness fix.
“So, no, I don’t want that terrible blowfly of boredom to enter this room, threading all your heads together on the slender necklace of sleep, and setting a tiny cluster of sharp needles in your, my listeners’, eyes.” *
“In a simple way, in the register that, in my poetic voice, holds neither the gleams of wood, nor the angles of hemlock, nor those sheep that suddenly become knives of irony, I want to see if I can give you a simple lesson on the buried spirit of saddened Spain.” *
On the streets of the cities of the world, multitudes stare at handheld, electronic appliances, proceeding along, all the while, missing the tones and textures of city life. In cafes and coffee shops, one is prone to disappear into realms of bloodless pixel. In this manner, so much is passed by and elided…including the human face.
What is forsaken, on a psychical and societal basis, by the loss of face-to-face encounters? The face of another (that of a human being and that of other animals) serves to summon one into the participation mystique of life. Deprivation of connection with the face of others causes one to lose connection with one’s own body and soul.
A crucial question fails to rise to the fore: What do I experience when I encounter a particular person? What do I make of this source of mystery — this emissary from eternity in the form of a living being — with whom arrives the possibility of connection, intrigue, conflict, or betrayal. If one loses the habit of communal engagement, one is in danger of losing one’s soul. The heart atrophies from a lack of interpersonal connection. The presence of others, even the panoply of life itself, is misapprehended as menacing…Others are perceived as malevolent, inhuman — as phantoms, devoid of face, heart, and blood.
Without the faces of others, we exist nowhere. Life is rendered a soulless dance of nada…sensation sans sensitivity…a facsimile of experience lacking in empathy, imagination and eros.
It all begins and ends with the face.
Empathy is cultivated through participation mystique. Denied of the experience, the heart is at risk of being rendered a cold citadel of angst and paranoia. Without empathy’s agency, passion cannot be transmuted into compassion. Sans the sublimation of the heart’s hearth, psychical fires threaten to become a raging wildfire of collective madness:
“Putin’s neo-Cossack hacker squads have invaded my hard drive; Iran craves nukes; North Korea is a coiled, nuclear viper of seething crazy; Antifa roughens are through the looking glass Nazis.” — Such thoughts can be read as, the inverted soul’s dark fantasies of release from ego-ossified bondage by means of the agency of death:
“The duende, by contrast, won’t appear if he can’t see the possibility of death, if he doesn’t know he can haunt death’s house, if he’s not certain to shake those branches we all carry, that do not bring, can never bring, consolation.” *
Therefore, it follows, as we are witnessing: The threatened extinction of the human species; blanched coral reefs, scoured of life; dying oceans, gagging in plastic particulates; the sky burning, the ashes of charred forests stippling the wind.
Concurrently: The surging, inundating flood of the media age, churning and cresting with fleeting yet inundating imagery and jejune text, drowns out and sweeps away from the psyche — this:
“The magic power of a poem [of art, of music] consists in it always being filled with duende, in its baptising all who gaze at it with dark water, since with duende it is easier to love, to understand, and be certain of being loved, and being understood, and this struggle for expression and the communication of that expression in poetry sometimes acquires a fatal character.” *
Yes, these auguries are freighted with darkness but, as Lorca reports:
“Dark sounds, behind which in tender intimacy exist volcanoes, ants, zephyrs, and the vast night pressing its waist against the Milky Way.” *
Lorca refers to an all but lost way of seeing that, at our extreme peril, we have forgotten:
“Those dark sounds are the mystery, the roots that cling to the mire that we all know, that we all ignore, but from which comes the very substance of art. ‘Dark sounds’ said the man of the Spanish people, agreeing with Goethe, who in speaking of Paganini hit on a definition of the duende: ‘A mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.” *
“The true struggle is with the duende.” *
“The arrival of the duende presupposes a radical change to all the old kinds of form, brings totally unknown and fresh sensations, with the qualities of a newly created rose, miraculous, generating an almost religious enthusiasm.” *
In order to remember and restore what is crucial, one must, by force of will, if necessary, return to and explore the breathing landscape of the unfolding moment. But, by all evidence, has been forgotten, by me, in my frequent, less than stellar moments, and by my fellow, bipedal land mammals as well.
Appropriating the mythopoetic imagination, this question arises: What realm of the godhead is social media located? Hermetic, perhaps…but only manifesting the god’s trickster aspect thus is devoid of autochthonic imperative. Mephistophelian, absolutely — i.e., the emptiness of knowledge devoid of participation mystique.
What talisman protects the yearning/grieving soul from the pathological criteria of modernity that ancient, more poetic cultures would have regarded as possession by less than salubrious spirits? The body itself…that is restored by communal engagement. The body cannot thrive without dance, without eros. The body…that is attune to the songs of the bones of the earth…that lives beyond itself when taking in the evening sky.
The body that is slighted to the point of neglect by the misnomer of life spent before glowing screens. The body, suffering in direct proportion to the besieged earth at the rapacious hands of humankind. We are alienated from the verities and mysteries of life itself. Yet, the body, the forsaken body, is encoded with maps limning the pollen path of healing.
The ground before us is skeined in gold.
*All excerpts from: Federico García Lorca, Theory and Play Of The Duende.
Hiroyuki Hamada: I am a generation or so younger than you two. And I’ve spent the bulk of my life as an artist struggling with visual elements within the confines of my studio, somehow trying to find a profound connection to life that way. It’s been only a decade or so since I started to really see the trajectory of our species in relation to the material reality of the planet, and the structural impediments in the way of our survivability.
But I’m learning fairly quick. I feel that it has to do with the very nature of art making in general, which forces us to grasp the essence of a particular theme intuitively and to be sensitive to multi-aspects of each element in the work in constructing a meaningful wholeness. We do this over and over in our studios. And, many of us, while we make, strive to break down an existing framework in order to see a new reality based on an unknown order.
So, the paradoxical tendency we see today, where many of our fellow artists are believers in corporate politics within the realm of the imperial framework, should be seen as the reflection of a grave crisis as well as the strength of the establishment to contain any ideas outside of the framework.
And ways to release this potential certainly can contribute to what Phil brought up at the beginning. Otherwise, the art can be a tool to embellish and whitewash the imperial framework. And I am afraid that there is a lot of it going on.
Obviously, the economic reality certainly is a huge impediment for artists. It certainly allows the expressions of the affluent to be more prevalent, while the cultural tendency against art in general, that John has mentioned above, might make artists avoid being associated with ideas condemned by the mainstream culture: Primarily, the stuff to do with anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism. One of the direct results would be an abundance of art works with narratives within corporate politics or identity politics, which, of course, can mask the structural mechanism of a global invisible caste order, enabling the systematic accumulation of wealth by the powerful few.
The tendency can certainly be seen within the broader realm of western culture itself. And it brings us to what John said about people not reading anymore. But I think this topic has a duality to it, in which the establishment narratives, holding strong roots in the society, are also crumbling with the wealth of facts and networks spreading beyond the imperial cage.
In a sense, we have a new layer of networks over our species. But it is of course aggressively colonized to serve the interests of the capitalist hierarchy. I’ve been learning a lot from research done by Cory Morningstarr with the Wrong Kind of Green, for example. The enormous wealth is finding ways to herd the momentum of dissenting voices within the framework of corporatism, colonialism and militarism by establishing a Non-profit Industrial Complex. The data provided by corporate NGOs and activism cultivated by corporate think tanks, corporate organizers and institutions finds its way into mainstream culture by acting seamlessly with the established order maintained by corporate media, academics and elected officials.
And I still can’t see how this new direction is manifesting itself regarding the topic of discussion here.
The phenomenon of “antifa” can be seen as a visible battle ground of this conflict. Corporate media actively depict “antifa” within the framework of corporate politics by primarily describing the momentum as a mixture of “resistance” against the current administration and an undesirable element generally described as the equivalent of “terrorists”. Now, the accurate description, of course, involves the third element, which, needless to say, is a genuine awareness and sympathy toward anti-imperialism as well as anti-capitalism. It is easy to assume that among those who wish to preserve the “democratic” framework guided by capitalism, there is a chronic fear of such momentum spontaneously emerging among the general population, systematically subverting the structure of the capitalist order from the bottom. Therefore, “antifa” must be rounded up to be demonized systematically in the same way Muslims, blacks, communism, socialism and so on have been cornered by the corporate culture.
John Steppling: Allow me to just interject here. And this is somewhat anecdotal but I rarely see leftists who embrace abstract art. Something that simple. Hiroyuki, whose work is non objective, is something quite unusual, actually. I remember being at a meeting of activists and leftists in Los Angeles, in an area outside the center, really, and this small meeting hall was deciding on what films to show that month. I forget really the context, but I had gone to suggest lectures on films. But when I suggested film noir and US film after WW2, I was met with no interest at all. Incomprehension in fact. They decided, eventually, to show a documentary on the homeless or something, and Battle of Algiers (which everyone had seen six or seven or twenty times). Now this is a very pronounced tendency on the left. Moral instruction is seen as the basic premise of cultural production.
Partly this comes out of an old factory marxism, but it also an American phenomenon to some degree. The old left in the U.S, or many of them, are myopic and inflexible. And I know activists who don’t want to work with any of them. They are obstructionist. They demand purity. On the other side is the reality that most of them are usually correct when analysing something. At least foreign policy. So why are so many young activists ignorant of US Imperialism and why do American leftists view art strictly in terms of theme and message? I have no answer. I do know a writer for The Nation that i had an argument with and accused me of mansplaining. And whose knowledge of Marx, as it happens, was shockingly inadequate. But this was a person driven by career. And there is no escaping that dynamic in the U.S. Success and failure. And they are measured by economic gain. Period. Putting this together one sees a kind of legacy of the colonial mind set, and nearly Calvinist distrust of that which cant be weighed or catalogued and which has no meaning. Adorno said art’s meaning was in its meaninglessness. Its lack of utility. For therein lied an autonomy and distance and potential for radicalness. I am simplifying. But there is a deep need now for the left to work at pedagogy. That is first. Cultural pedagogy, and arts teaching in most public schools is actually nonexistent today. And two, to work at developing awareness of the nature and implications of white supremacy. And third to educate about patriarchy. For a lot of bourgeois feminism is hugely problematic. Counterproductive in fact. I see defenders of Melania Trump and her fucking Christian Louboutin stilettos. And I see a good deal of distrust that circles around the power of images. A lack of awareness. As if most Americans of any political bent simply do not deconstruct image. Rhonda Garelick wrote a very sharp brief take on Melania and her shoes. The response to that article went along the lines mostly of ‘who cares, whats that matter. and best, you are bullying this poor woman. POOR woman’? Yes, that was written. A feminist said that. Victimhood. I see white people clutching desperately to victimhood. The white victim. And i say again there was a global wound that happened when the USSR dissolved. Same with the death of Castro. For the USSR and Cuba fought for African independence and against colonial adventure. They defended the liberation of black America as well. George Jackson looked to Lenin and the Russian revolution, and to Mao and to Fidel. Same with the destruction of Yugoslavia. Another wound. And this wound continues to fester as well.
White victims, and white voyeurism. I wrote a piece on Jacques Ranciere’s regressive tone deaf neo racist take on Alfredo Jarr’s Rwanda Project installation, The Eyes of Gutete Emerita. This was what I wrote:
“Additionally, this artwork of Jaar’s is frought with colonial cliches. It is a fetishizing of Africans as victims, and the use of eyes is reminiscent of much Colonial writing. The eyes of the predator, bloodshot, out of control; the prose of Empire while in the colonies is rife with descriptions of the eyes of the natives. This is almost caricature. These eyes are not like any others because they have seen a special horror. Secondly, there is something deeply sentimentalizing about this. The woman, the mother, helpless, but now (!) assisted by a white artist. A man! Artist as white savoir, who also gets to wring his hands, brimming with white guilt.”
The white voyeur. Observing Houston and the suffering from a distance. The acute suffering is that of the poor of course.
Jeff St Clair wrote..
“I tend to see Harvey as the latest aftershock of the political mentality that led to Deepwater Horizon. The Obama mentality, if you will. The pious mentality that signs the toothless Paris Accords, while authorizing deepwater drilling, fracking, coal liquidification, mountaintop removal mining, LNG terminals and offshore drilling.”
The activists in the US desperately need education, and should be looking for it in the old left I am also criticizing. For they need to understand far more the nature of US imperialism, of the continuing plunder of the global south and the enormity of the suffering caused by US militarism. And finally, there is a huge danger now in the faux left. I am thinking of Chris Hedges remarkably reactionary article on antifa, and others such as the opportunistic Bhaskar Sunkara (Jacobin) and the endless stream of pretend left that clutter up The Guardian. These people are dangerous. They are serving the interests of what they purport to criticize. Controlled opposition.
Phil Rockstroh: Controlled, in many cases, by their compulsive careerism, a mode of mind and attendant Weltanschauung that is, by reflex, reductionist. The mindset dismisses not only art but psychoanalysis, or any process of character deepening — not outright, as noted — but by unconscious reflex, for the reason such endeavours do not bestow an immediate utility insofar as careerist gain. The careerist’s hyper-professional path instils a crackbrained realism, and I believe the phenomenon also applies to your insight, John, as to why all too many leftists, who have internalised the very capitalist order that they believe they have rejected, evince an indifference — if not philistine belligerence towards art. I’m not bandying value judgements here. I mean, how is it possible to avoid the internalisation of a phenomenon as psychically inundating as is the culture one is born into?
If you were born a Germanic pagan, the woodlands, glens, and meadows you navigate on a daily basis would be plangent with the resonances and admonitions of Wotan. Thus careerism, to those possessed by its careerist incantations and are inculcated with its cannons, seems to carry a numinous quality that degrades into a cultist mindset. In short, it is the only form of participation mystique available under late capitalist despotism. (To wit, we can glimpse why Hillary Clinton and the entire klavern of coastal, careerist elites are unable to grasp the mindset of flyover state “deplorables.”) We are confronted with a kind of cultural and self-induced hypnosis. Thus their perceptions regarding art can only be viewed through a circumscribed lens of commodification…the dismal criteria that caused Robert Hughes to go muttering to his grave, and, I suspect, John, was at the root of your disenchantment with Hollywood.
Frequently, I’m asked why I’m not on Twitter.
The landscape of language is being fracked; its eco-system destroyed by a truncating of the complexity of lexicon, both written and spoken. There is the banality of evil and then there is the evil of banality. The banal mind of the crackbrained careerist must reduce earth, sky, language, and psyche to controllable (dreamless and dead) bits. All is fodder for commodification.
“I attack all those persons/ who know nothing of the other half,/ the half who cannot be saved,/ who raise their cement mountains/ in which the hearts of the small/ animals no ones thinks of are beating.” — Federico García Lorca, excerpt: New York (Office and Attack)
All as the manic media culture churns in a proliferation of fervid imagery that is freighted with a nightmare quality, as concurrently, nightmare storms and wildfires, so huge in scope that they seem culled from the dreaming mind of one in the midst of a breakdown, descend upon us.
“In the sky there is nobody asleep. Nobody, nobody.
Nobody is asleep.
The creatures of the moon sniff and prowl about their cabins.
The living iguanas will come and bite the men who do not dream,
and the man who rushes out with his spirit broken will meet on the
the unbelievable alligator quiet beneath the tender protest of the
Federico García Lorca, excerpt: City That Does Not Sleep.
Hiroyuki Hamada: I totally agree with the necessity of educating people about imperialism, its history and associated mechanisms. In particular, people need to know that imperialism requires a structure based on exploitation and subjugation. Its very presence is the problem. Period. People don’t get that. That’s why they are so easily mobilized to support proxy wars, crime bills, regime change schemes and so on. The devastating colonial policies, structural violence and draconian laws, which enforce the hierarchy onto them, are normalized and invisible, while the victims and anyone or any entity going against the order can be demonized or destroyed. Because, the privilege and entitlement of the upper caste orders are invisible, and the suffering and death of the lower caste orders are invisible as well. We are all “equal” and we are all obeying “rule of laws” because it’s “democracy”, except the whole thing is rigged by the imperial hierarchy backed by 900 military bases, 17 spy agencies, enormous wealth, corporate media, corporate NGOs and so on.
And, I also think that the feeling of guilt over generations of imperial crimes–the festering wound, as John refers to it–somehow does manifest even though people act as if there were no crimes committed under their names. It manifests as a fear of reprisal, just as the slave owners felt against their slaves, and it feeds the cycle of violence against colonized subjects in faraway lands as well as against the oppressed populations domestically. The whole thing is a rather sophisticated machine, except it eventually devours itself as it can’t solve the capitalist contradiction of requiring endless resources and subjugated populations…
John Steppling: Its a kind of real relief to just write this way, and wander around topics. For I think the insistence on time, on efficiency and organization, on rigid and measured thought, all of this is part of the empiricist bent of the West. And a sort of hyper bureaucratization that afflicts society today, in the West.
Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7 is a great and comprehensive analysis of this obsession with time and the coercive uses employed by the government in the interests of control. So a stream of consciousness discourse is ever rarer. One reason, often, interviews with poets or thinkers are so satisfying is that you get to listen to them think aloud.
There is a darkness in all art and creativity. I will quote you the last section of one of my favorite poems. From James Wright…”At the Executed Murderer’s Grave”..
Doty, the rapist and the murderer,
Sleeps in a ditch of fire, and cannot hear;
And where, in earth or hell’s unholy peace,
Men’s suicides will stop, God knows, not I.
Angels and pebbles mock me under trees.
Earth is a door I cannot even face.
Order be damned, I do not want to die,
Even to keep Belaire, Ohio, safe.
The hackles on my neck are fear, not grief.
(Open, dungeon! Open, roof of the ground!)
I hear the last sea in the Ohio grass,
Heaving a tide of gray disastrousness.
Wrinkles of winter ditch the rotted face
Of Doty, killer, imbecile, and thief:
Dirt of my flesh, defeated, underground.
I despair too, with Hiroyuki, when I think of the violence perpetrated by the US. The global ring of military bases. The bullying of the defenseless. And worse. The plunder and murder and torture. How can so many americans be so unaware of this history. Americans are killers at heart, I fear. DH Lawrence said that, famously. In his oft quoted remark in lectures on american literature. The entire hegemony of petro dollars, the reserve currency and massive defense spending…all of it dovetails to form this neo Empire. And really, its a kind of fascism already. And the early italian fascists, the futurists, obsessed about speed, too. Loved machines and engines and the illusions of getting somewhere. At least Marinetti had talent. Fotunato Depero, or Severini. Americans cant even do fascism right. The destruction of public education in the US under Reagan, an education system that was none too good to begin with, marked the beginning of the end for a society of any literacy at all. People seem unable to read propaganda AS propaganda. Ive always felt if one read Dostoyevsky or even Patricia Highsmith or Flannery O Conner, or Cesare Pavese, one might develop a certain psychic teflon to stop propaganda sticking to one’s brain. And i honestly think its more about hearing, about listening, about recognizing the sound of the lie. People have lost that.
Phil Rockstroh: Very true, John, without an imperative for a deepening of self and creative engagement with the culture, there exists little chance of transformation, of remaking of the present order, from its rotten roots to its noxious blossoming . The approach of artists to the situation calls for an embrace of radical imagination in unison with a sense of sacred vehemence. Blake averred that we do not have an imagination we are imagination.
Alexander Cockburn advised, to keep one’s hate pure. An artist must apprehend and respond to the present blood-sucking, earth-devastating order, a hierarchy of vampires, with the pure hatred it deserves. To wit, one gains the agency of heart and head to drive a stake through the dry-as-dust heart of the status quo.
Radical imagination provides the psychical space for change to unfold and evolve.
As Lorca limned in lyric:
“The duende….Where is the duende? Through the empty archway a wind of the spirit enters, blowing insistently over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents: a wind with the odour of a child’s saliva, crushed grass, and medusa’s veil, announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things.”
Hiroyuki Hamada: Hmm…Phil, I totally feel what you said so gracefully, with all my being. And at the same time, it pains me to feel how elusive such wildness and the raw impulse to free our imagination can be. I think we are often tied by the social structure that suppresses the brewing of such ideas and the ideas themselves as inappropriateness or even mental illness.
One example would be how kids are termed as having behavioral illnesses by showing insubordinate tendencies. This is rather shocking to me since I myself had to consciously learn how to act like a kid with ADHD in my studio to be effective in my creative process; when you are making, you can’t have set rules dominating the phenomenons unfolding before you; you can’t be stuck with schedules interrupting you; you can’t ignore small things that might be the clue for a major breakthrough; sometimes you have to scream; sometimes you just have to walk away and so on. But if you are a 5 year old genius, you will be punished or be drugged if you are older.
I am sure that with all sorts of manmade substances tossed into the environment, we probably do have physical components that can’t be attributed to our psychological needs alone, but still, I have a serious doubt about how our society deems creative behaviors as sickness because they don’t coincide with the system requiring obedient people for efficiency, productivity and profits. The unquantifiable creative potential smashed by such a tendency can be enormous.
And speaking of the urgent need for radical imagination and keeping one’s hate pure, I think the lack of those is not only stifling our capability to come up with the solutions, but it is blinding many of us from simply seeing the mechanism itself.
And the mechanism of neo-feudal hierarchy is built into our identities as we grow up in the imperial confinement. This, I find to be extremely hard to detect sometimes. Yesterday, for example, I saw one of the most profound Facebook exchanges in one of my threads, between renowned anti-war activist S. Brian Willson and Andrew Rossi, who is a medical expert and activist currently reporting from Yemen on the ongoing imperial war. I have tremendous respect for both of them. I posted Brian’s overwhelming testimony against the atrocities committed by the US in Vietnam. To be clear, Brian was thorough in describing the war crimes in detail, while sharply pointing out, not just the US government, but the entire US culture and society itself as the undeniable culprit of the monstrosity.
But surprisingly, Adrian lashed out at Brian’s essay saying that Brian’s use of words describing the actions of the US troops–“honorably” and “heroically”–couldn’t come out unless Brian was attempting to “sanitize and justify the horrific atrocities committed”.
Here is Brian’s sentence:
“As honorably, and in some cases heroically, our military served and fought in Southeast Asia, we were nonetheless serving as cannon fodder, in effect mercenaries for reasons other than what we were told.”
Most of us would regard this as a way to describe the problematic nature of people being misguided by the war propaganda. To be honest, I did too.
But as I heard Adrian’s argument, it started to be clear to me that he was pointing out something that was invisible to many of us. He was pointing out the imperial mindset that extends to the actual killing, raping, mutilating and torturing. He was talking about the mind that decides it is somehow acceptable sounding to hear about “killing to do justice as an American soldier in Iraq”, while “killing to do justice in Washington DC or New York City “, for example, would sound outright criminal, murderous, atrocious and completely unacceptable. It determines who deserves what. It drives the whole imperial structure that oppresses people with impunity across the globe and within the gated communities of the western countries as well. Both killings in faraway lands and here should sound awful if we were truly equal. But that is not the case. And the mindset does exist as we speak, in many people’s minds, regardless of the fact that the US government is killing or not. It is something I personally talk about all the time. It’s the mentality regarding death squads in Syria to be somewhat necessary for “democracy”, while people in the US are encouraged to march peacefully under the protection of the state authority, for example. But I couldn’t detect it in Brian’s writing until Adrian pointed it out ardently. And, needless to say, if we eliminate the war crimes while tolerating the mindset, we will most likely perpetuate the imperial crimes.
This will be long but I would like to quote some of Adrian’s comments as well as a comment by Brian:
Adrian Rossi: “The CIA tried recruiting me at age 20. I know how seductive it can all be. The promise of heroism, patriotism, making a difference in the world, etc. I’m also well aware of the fact that recruiting boys straight out of high school is just another perverse mechanism employed by those at the top, and the one they prefer. While I agree with the undeniable science behind your statement regarding the reduced ability for critical thinking at that age, I also believe that that veers dangerously towards some form of justification. Of course an 18 year old ( especially given the USA’s insular education system ) will not know much about the dynamics of a region such as the Middle East or Vietnam. No one is claiming otherwise. That being said, if an 8 year old understands the immorality of murder , so can an 18 year old. Think Piaget and Erikson.
No soldier ( whether 19 or 40 ) goes to war with the impression that he will be playing dollies. At 18, anyone is mature enough to know murder is wrong. Anyone knows that before grabbing their weapons, grenades, and bombers, they should at the very least, ask their government why they’re mass slaughtering. I’d like to ask you what the intimation of this is: “In these contexts it is not so easy to just say everything is clearly right or wrong because people have not yet developed critical thinking. “. — Are you saying U.S soldiers just go ahead and slaughter wherever Uncle Sam says because at 18 or 20, they’re not yet completely sure whether mass murder is right or wrong? If anything, this is the one act no one should allow any lines of grey around. See, that’s what bothers and nauseates me, as someone who witnessed U.S soldiers slaughtering, raping , sodomizing children as young as 5, decapitating and sniping Iraqis in Fallujah and raping Palestinian refugees in Baghdad for fun while the UN covered it all up. I can tell you one thing: Those weren’t 18 or 19 year olds betrayed by their governments who felt betrayed. Those were individuals with proclivities so horrific, words cannot convey them. Those were individuals who took pleasure in it. Each and every one of them. I did not see one of them feeling bad for it.
I will direct you to what I wrote about Fallujah if you will be kind enough as to read it in its entirety. As for U.S soldiers who refused to participate in war crimes : Being there was a war crime in and of itself. You’re right. Those who didn’t most likely just watched as those who did had their fun. I know plenty of Vietnam vets myself and I listened to each and every one of their stories. To me, there is something truly disturbing about claiming U.S soldiers who saved lives there were acting out of heroism. All my respect to them, but they did go there with murder in mind. That’s what war is, yes? Unless of course we’re talking about playing the good cop bad cop game. Once again: Very troubling to say that the same US who slaughtered also saved civilians from the horror they brought upon them.”
Adrian: “Isn’t that a trite euphemism though? “Life is a journey and process, not a simple destination”. And doesn’t that trite euphemism become a luxury only western countries and their armies of horrific crimes get to enjoy Brian? From where I stand, the luxury of learning that genocide, mass murder, obliteration of nations Uncle Sam doesn’t like and so forth are bad via that “life is a journey and process” mentality is a luxury paid in the blood of millions. That road they have that journey on is made soft by their flesh. Fight evil? We’re going back to blaming the indoctrination process which involves a certain relinquishment of personal responsibility. We all know “fighting evil” will require killing even as children from the stories our parents read, yes? I do believe an 18 or 20 year old will know that “fighting evil” ( indoctrination via dogmatic lies ) will require killing. They’re ok with killing without even knowing the true nature of the situation . Do you believe U.S soldiers who slaughtered iraqi civilians then threw them into the Euphrates like animal carcassses knew anything about Iraqi culture? The ba’athist party? That women were engineers,teachers, etc? Do you think they knew anything about history? Of course not. They didn’t require that in order to drag them to the Euphrates tied to tanks, then disposing of them like expired merchandise.”
Adrian: “With all due respect, we weren’t talking about your life journey here. Make no mistake, I admire your willingness to rage against the machine, but it’s quite clear that you still harbour some attachments you’re not yet ready to let go of, and those attachments clearly involve a deep seated refusal to admit ( not to me or anyone else) but yourself that absolutely no U.S soldier – or any soldier that goes to war like sheep can be heroic in any way shape or form. They forfeit that right once they enter the army and land their first kill. There are no mistakes Brian. There’s just what you do and what you don’t do. Surely at 76, you don’t need someone like me telling you this.
Absolutely no human being capable of naturally occurring empathy ( neurotypical ) can get to the point where he or she engages in the horrific war crimes I witnessed throughout the Middle East ( or the ones they committed in Vietnam. ) simply as a result of army training or indoctrination – no matter how strenuous or demanding it may be on both the body and the mind. Something has to go wrong first. Either their brain chemistry is unbalanced after swimming in too much serotonin from their mother’s womb or someone messed up their Maslow, Erikson or Piaget early on. Or both. What you have to understand is that individuals who suffer from either mental illness or an inability to adjust to society as we know it for whatever reason, learn how to mimic normal human behaviour from a very young age. As they start realizing the socio-cultural patterns surrounding them, they will try their best to emulate those values, even if they don’t mean anything to them. This is until the U.S Army or the CIA gets to them, allowing for an entirely new universe where they get to unpack those repressed propensities for violence and overall immoral , unscrupulous behaviour in an environment that not only accepts it, but rewards it.
That’s one scenario. The other is the one where they just get recruited out of high school, lured with promises of patriotism and heroism. In both scenarios, it’s the maladjusted that make for the best soldiers or agents. There’s a very interesting difference between these two scenarios though: For the first category, such a “career” is viewed as a type of drug dealer that deals in adrenaline, ecstasy and an outlet for proclivities they couldn’t possibly manifest in a “normal” society without fear of reprisals. Think of Maslow: In psychopathy for example, safety occupies a different tier than in neurotypicals for different reasons, but still – no psychopath will want to risk going to prison. The 2nd category sees a military or CIA career as a kind of home. Some place where they get to be a part of a community that understands them at a level no one from the outside would. It is focused mainly on what that community offers rather than seeking a fix of adrenaline. That is what the military and the CIA seek out. You can tell yourself it’s about lies and betrayal of innocent 18 year olds all you want. If that helps you sleep at night. The truth though, is far more harrowing than anyone wants to admit. As a vet , you know what I”m saying is true.”
Adrian: “I’m sure you’re at a place in life where you have reached some level of closure I have yet to attain. What you have to understand is this rage that pours from me isn’t necessarily directed at you. It’s directed at the indescribable disgust I have with the USA’s imperialism and anyone who tries to paint U.S soldiers as heroes under any circumstances. The things I’ve seen haunt me. There is no ounce of tolerance whatsoever left for anything of the kind. Does that make sense to you as someone in his 70s? Surely it must. I’m sorry for my tone but it tends to sharpen with each piece of intestine and brain I have to pick up from under the rubble.”
S Brian Willson: “I have lived with disgust and shame for 48 years. I have worked at healing for most of those years in a variety of ways, but not thru drugs or alcohol. I consider the USA the most violent and deceitful force on the planet, and my expressions to this effect through the years in my writings and books, website, films, talks, etc.,
have been part of my therapy, my atonement if you will.
I left my professional life early and became organically an activist/writer/speaker.
I now live in Nicaragua where I spent much of the latter half of the 1980s observing in the war zones made dangerous by Reagan’s terrorists. My activities caused me to almost lose my life at a demonstration in California agains Reagan’s vicious wars in Central America , though in the end I only lost both legs and my right frontal lobe.
To me dignity trumps longevity.”
Adrian: “I got shot in my lower left abdomen while in Iraq by U.S Marines for getting civilians into the ambulance in Fallujah’s Julan district. Once I got back to NY ( which was where I lived back then ), Mattis’s boys and their friends tried killing me while I was out on a casual walk. Why, might you ask? Why, for reporting their war crimes to their superiors and wanting to go public with it as every news agency turned me down claiming it was “explosive information I couldn’t provide enough proof on”. We’re talking about a situation where even taking a picture would have gotten you sniped as a doctor, civilian, or journalist. Know what Mattis did with those reports? Cleared his boys of every pending investigation. And then of course there’s the U.S Marine I caught in a UNHCR tent in Baghdad while working as a translator , pulling at the clothes of a 5 year old. It wasn’t violent ( yet ) . It was just that slimy – before – the – violence moment where he was smirking as he was doing it. I think you get what I mean. I got inside the tent, took him out and knocked all of his teeth out. That child had no idea what was going on but had this terrified look on her face and was sitting in a fetal-like position in the corner as I entered the tent. He eventually told me she was just an “islamic b*** who deserved it anyway, since her prophet rapes little girls”. Told me I didn’t get who the “enemy was”. Promised to kill me. Pointed his finger at me and looked me in the eye in front of everyone with this menacing look in his eyes. This is nothing compared to what you just described, but we seem to be on the same side. My knee jerk reaction is based on these and quite a few other such instances. Thank you for your time and energy bringing forth the truth about America’s war crimes and its vassals.”
OK, sorry about the long quote, but I felt it was useful for our conversation. It’s worth noting that Adrian also wonders about the criminality of the American people in one of the comments, which was also mentioned by John.
And I should also point out that Brian was extremely patient and responded to Adrian with respect, while Adrian recognized that and he apologized to Brian for lashing out. I felt that the whole conversation was driven by the purity of the “hatred”, and it was received by the radical imagination of some readers, helping those to see the imperialism within themselves as they reached out to where Adrian stood.
John Steppling is an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theatre, and PEN-West winner for playwriting. Plays produced in LA, NYC, SF, Louisville, and at universities across the US, as well in Warsaw, Lodz, Paris, London and Krakow. Taught screenwriting and curated the cinematheque for five years at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, Poland. A collection of plays, Sea of Cortez & Other Plays was published in 1999, and his book on aesthetics, Aesthetic Resistance and Dis-Interest was published this year by Mimesis International. He lives in Norway.
Hiroyuki Hamada is an artist. He has exhibited throughout the United States and in Europe and is represented by Bookstein Projects. He has been awarded various residencies including those at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, the Edward F. Albee Foundation/William Flanagan Memorial Creative Person’s Center, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and the MacDowell Colony. In 1998 Hamada was the recipient of a Pollock Krasner Foundation grant, and was awarded a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship twice. He lives and works in New York.