INSIDE THE STOMACH OF THE DRAGON:
THE VICTORY OF THE ENTERTAINMENT ECONOMY
In 1909, Freud visited Coney Island. We know very little of what took place that day, except that he and Jung suffered from diarrhea that week, during their trip to New York. An odd anecdote: I have recently imagined what amusements in Coney Island Freud might have fancied. Very likely, he was appalled. He could not have missed Dreamland. It had what Disney later would call a Big Wow-- a thirty foot naked woman in plaster, known as Creation. In order to enter, Freud would have essentially walked under her looming vagina, then navigated through one pre-conscious attraction after another, from freaks to dwarfs to Hell.
We also know that Freud and Jung ate in New York’s Chinatown that week. Four years later, he complained about patients who dreamt in mass-culture imagery, whose dream work restaged imagery from popular wood engravings by Gustave Doré. Then Freud leaves blanks in the record. We know very little about what he thought was the impact of mass culture upon the psyche. He wrote about folklore invading the collective process, about war trauma, about the ghoulish entrapment by machines, about Leonardo’s latent homosexuality, but barely a word about the visual entertainments that proliferated around him (amusement parks, illustrated weeklies, cinema, department stores, signage on stores).
Today, of course, that has been utterly reversed. From the mid-fifties into the late eighties, postmodern theory was literally a total immersion glorifying the noir acid burn of consumer culture: how it warps our sign systems, generates perverse mythemes, distorts our memory, floods us with simulacra. Mass culture took on the glamour of a collective bad acid trip, where meaning became attenuated, where nothing could be trusted.
Of course, postmodernism ended in the early 1990’s essentially. There is not even a name for our era (I like to call it the Electronic Baroque, even electronic feudalism). But one fact is dead certain: terms like consumerism and mass culture seem naive now. We all essentially live inside the stomach of the “entertainment” dragon. As a result, it would be near impossible to generate an avant-garde strategy in a world that feels increasingly like an outdoor shopping mall, what I call a scripted space. Try to find a principle boulevard in any of the major cities in Europe or the United States that hasn’t been rescripted into a kind of outdoor mall. Entertainment design has recoded architecture, the fine arts, publishing, probably sexual foreplay.
So I prefer a broader term to describe this dragon effect, something like the entertainment economy, with our ghastly presidential election floating deep inside it. We have lost our map distinguishing what lay inside from what lay outside. We no longer make clear distinctions between fact and artifice, not in photographic ”truth” any more than political truth. I often say that we have become tourists in our own cities; and next in our own bodies.
A rather gloomy prospect: we check out the smart features in our new cell phone. We watch our political discourse dissolve like milk in gasoline. On cable news, surrogates from the Republican Party prove that all attacks on Bush are forged, and politically motivated. The reporter nods, does everything but salute. Everybody smirks. Another day over, and no one took the silverware. Liberty and the War on Terror still allow us to go shopping this weekend.
But look on the bright side. Being inside the stomach of the dragon has distinct advantages, perhaps at a catastrophic cost, but who said omelets came easy? The entertainment economy has a powerful weakness; and we in cultural work have a luminous opportunity. I’ll explain by first returning to Freud’s world circa 1909: Lately, I have been researching deeply into how the twentieth century was “imagined” before it began, essentially from 1870 to 1914 in Europe and the US, then also Mexico City, Japan, China and Africa. I have cruised through thousands of images already, and hundreds of infernally dull utopian novels, essays, blurbs. There is nothing more like mosquitoes breeding in still water than a four hundred page description of sanitary communities and perfect government in a utopian nowhere, as in news from nowhere. There are socialist, anarchist, feminist, pre-Bolshevik, Zionist and proto-Nazi utopias, as well as dozens of books on how total war might look in decades to come.
The mass-culture world circa 1909 looks outwardly serene, particularly in England. But the class warfare, the hysteria close to the surface was as profound as our low-grade nervous breakdown today. Still that world was obsessed with Hegelian transformation. The artists, writers, editors, publishers, readers, activists assumed that very shortly woman would “take charge,” wear the pants, that socialism was a tide, that cities would be sculpted into a buzz of home flying machines and mile-high skyscrapers. The utter cultural necessity for new forms in these dense cities was deeply felt.
So even as bloodiest century in human history was beginning its gruesome march to the sea, literally in the shadow of what became the First World War, a strange cultural machinery was still at work. As massive as plutocratic super cartels became, somehow the simple artisanal potential of avant-garde experimentation was assumed. the future was a machine made to reform and build a dialectic. That was clear even inside the broadest markets of entertainment, from cinema to world’s fairs to magazine culture to the ads in daily newspapers to dime museums and dime novels. Somehow this nightmarish world of 1909 (talk about making omelets!) could generate and distribute new forms rather easily compared to our systems today. And it did so very self-consciously: 1909 was literally called the year that the world changed, as Virginia Woolf wrote, as Marinetti wrote, as Apollinaire wrote, as Ezra Pound wrote, as scientists across continents wrote. But that is old news, the modernist story… too mythic, too often over-mystified.
We jump edit to 2004: I am visiting a conference on computer games. Three understanding directors from that industry, three honest and gentle brokers, field questions from the audience. One student asks: “If I have an original idea for a game, who do I talk to, how do I make contact?”
All three experts shared a knowing glance. “Not this year,” one expert explained. “There is no market for original ideas this year. The game can cost tens of millions of dollars now. It needs to be sponsored under an umbrella of some kind, through an established brand like James Bond, or Lord of the Rings”
Even my jaw dropped. These were probably the kindest of their kind. They were patiently offering helpful tips, giving up part of their limited free time to help students. No room for “original ideas” was a simple fact, how business was done.
Now we extrapolate quickly, expand this comment to the entertainment economy at large. In practically every area of mass culture (film, publishing, games, casinos, TV, radio, automobiles), the distribution systems are now controlled by a few companies. What has resulted is so top-heavy that literally no new forms can be developed. The story stops here, like a game of musical chairs frozen eternally at STOP. No laboratory format, no avant-garde strategies, no subversion from outside (there is an artificial “outside” within the stomach of the dragon). The entertainment economy is so muscle bound, it is unable to lift itself out of the chair.
The costs keep soaring for objects. The shrinking potential keeps growing. Next year, Publishers Weekly will cease reviewing poetry. Books in general have almost no innate system for reviews. New novels are increasingly inconceivable to publish, as the fiction market leans increasingly on genre and established names. The fine arts and independent cinema struggle to built alternatives, but the age of slick and polish remains overwhelmingly dominant.
Let us imagine this in a single gesture. The culture of 1909 was divided enough and conflicted enough to be extremely rigid in one way. It was a vertical system toward success, to be noticed. It was one of five cities, one of five journals, one of five review sources. This vertical system had its problems, but apparently managed to have its counter culture and opposition.
The culture of 2004 is quite different. It is horizontal, not vertical—outsourced, globalized, multi-tasked, acentered. And yet highly centralized, often like a beached whale, massive but immobile, unable to start from scratch, or engage the present structurally, with new forms. Only technology, the gadgetry of our culture easily changes shape—shapeshifts-- almost every year. The novel, the movie, the video game, theater, TV, museum curating, and dozens of other cultural forms might as well have been carved on stone and left to weather up on Mount Sinai. The eleventh commandment for culture is “thou shalt polish, but never break.”
Horizontalized culture makes careers difficult to navigate in the arts and media, because there is practically no visibility except at the top, nowhere else that is very reliable. Our experimental arts are being outsourced just like our manufacturing; but not to foreign countries, instead to elephantine distribution networks that can barely bend far enough to drink at the water hole; and continually argue that this lethargy and reactionary policies are normal for business. In fact, they are a suicidal impulse for business; they ultimately remove profit and the pleasure of the form itself.
It is a hollowing out as much as a horizontalizing. It hollows out the dynamic of story, of engagement to the moment. It distances until even the present turns into nostalgia; and the future is only the past futures with better software.
Emotionally, this hollowing out is a new form of alienation; and that might be useful for the arts. We feel invaded by the entertainment economy, plundered in fact. By contrast, Freud describes an impacted, neurotic mode of alienation, circa 1909, where pain and desire are cathected with difficulty, where we are forced into a painful internalization.
Instead, in our era, privacy is a nuisance, and intimacy is a skill. We talk a good game about protecting our privacy, but in fact, identity theft is going on in a much more powerful psychological way than simply having your credit card stolen through the Internet.
Now the hopeful part of my essay: As you exhale painfully, listening for echoes, for symptoms of hollowing out-- both professional and emotional-- let me offer some good news. The world beneath the radar still exists, and can be grown. Alternative modes of Internet distribution are starting to show up in music and cinema.
As the eighteenth century novelists used to say, “dear reader,” these new forms will be more exciting, potentially more commercial than anything that the dragon can offer. They will be fresh, clumsy in their honesty, point toward our condition much more powerfully, answer our needs. They will not be avant-garde, any more than industrial design was, or the eighteenth century novel, or film grammar. We must become structuralists again, not postmoderns. We can do this. If we don’t, the dragon surely will not.
All forms of narrative should be put up to question; all forms of identity in story. Beginnings, middles and ends should be re-evaluated. Nothing that is taken for granted should be ignored. We start not from scratch, but with the sensory and political realities of the moment. Be a trifle clumsy, be a trifle risky. Trust your ability to get lost in order to find something. The new forms will find a market. I have no doubt.
Freud walked through Coney Island in 1909. That experience has now become our entire public life. And also a replacement for much of our private identity. But frankly, I feel very 1909 as I write this. I am as much an emotional mess as any of Freud’s patients, or at least his models of the mind. In am clearly anxious about this election season, and tired, like many (dear reader), who find the same hill rebuilding itself overnight, after digging my way out all day.
In other words, we have not emotionally evolved all that much. The next century that we imagine is as dangerous, as frightening as the one imagined in 1909. We need stream of consciousness novels, entirely new forms of expressionism, new modes of socialism, new modes of feminism, new theories on how capitalism does its wonders, who it turns those loaves of bread back into almost nothing.
Now my final suggestion: spend the next day imagining what “from scratch” in culture might look like now—not then, not as poststructuralism—now. Imagine the object that you wish someone would make finally, because it would surely be infinitely more honest. And sketch out your first clumsy model. Try more than one model actually. In art work, it is always easier to date than to marry. Then imagine what research you would need, or what “simple” solution might realize this further. Assume that you are now ignorant, and that this is wonderful, because in our culture, engagement is the answer to the hollowing out, to the horizontalizing, to the meta blah of the fully extended entertainment culture.
And do not assume that we have any moral superiority over entertainment. Truth is, we love it in many ways, each of us separately, each of us deeply. This is not an avant-garde strategy; it is engagement without priorities. We jump because it looks wet. We learn how to make water on the way down. The future belongs to us; it really does. Because entertainment over-bloat can only invent taste markets, not new forms.