iconoclasts

June 22, 2009

I watched the movie Armageddon on TV the other night and I cried twice.  I hadn’t seen the movie Armageddon since it came out and didn’t have much of a desire to ever see it again, even though I’ve seen one of Michael Bay’s other movies, The Rock, about ten times and will almost always turn to it when it’s airing on cable, which is almost always.  There was nothing on TV the other night, though, not The Rock or even something starring the Rock.  My dad and I had been watching Olbermann for lack of anything else but we weren’t even really watching it, it was just “on,” and Olbermann was ranting about the bitchy e-mails of some congressional staffer and boring me and so I flipped over to Armageddon, since I figured if there wasn’t something exploding when I landed on Armageddon, something would probably explode within about thirty seconds or so after that and I wanted to see something explode.  I was that kind of bored the other night, the kind of bored where you want to see things explode.  The first time I saw the movie Armageddon, I saw it in a movie theater, which is of course because of technical reasons the best place to see things explode, the loudness of the speakers and the largeness of the screen more realistically representing what an explosion feels like than the average television set, or at least I assume so, having never actually felt an actual explosion in real life myself.  I only expected to watch Armageddon for a couple of minutes before changing the channel back to the live feed of the news of the world, but instead I stayed on the channel the whole time until the movie ended and I cried, twice.

The first part of the movie Armageddon that made me cry is the part that’s supposed to make you cry, that is calibrated with ball bearings and string sections and focus groups to make you cry, which is the part when Bruce Willis’s character heroically sacrifices himself to save not only his son-in-law-to-be and the rest of the ragtag band of outsiders who he calls friends but the whole human race, really, the part when he stays on the runaway asteroid about to collide with the Earth in order to deliver a lengthy and maudlin monologue via satellite to his daughter Liv Tyler and then trigger the nuclear device which will destroy the asteroid and save humanity and allow the triumphant Aerosmith song to be played.  The first time I cried was at some point during the lengthy and maudlin monologue delivered via satellite to Liv Tyler, which, again, I would be worried about myself if I didn’t cry then, since not crying in the face of such a masterful onslaught of mise-en-scène would mean that there was something wrong with my nervous system or tear ducts, like if a doctor hit your knee with that little hammer and you didn’t kick.

The second part of the movie Armageddon that made me cry, the part that really did it, was the part just after Bruce Willis triggers the nuclear device that destroys the asteroid and saves humanity.  When the nuclear device explodes, we first see it from space, this massive and perfectly geometric shock wave of blue light blooming out across the black screen in a slow motion, low frequency whoosh, so beautiful, a sublime image of destruction.  After this explosion, there’s a triumphant montage of crowds of people in locations all around the world witnessing the explosion and cheering on this explosion in the heavens that just in the nick of time has saved them and the rest of humanity from doom.  At the Taj Mahal, thousands of people see the light screaming across the sky and they jump up from the ground and cheer, all of them in perfect sync like in a Bollywood musical directed by Leni Riefenstahl.  In some vague Eastern European setting, a bearded man in an ancient doorway smiles up at the stratosphere as he explains to the adorably disheveled children around him what’s happened and how they’re all safe now, how it’s going to be okay.  Fresh-faced boys in tiny suits in a nondescript British or Irish glen point towards the clouds, excited; children in a sepia-toned rural America coast through dusty streets in pushcars painted like space shuttles while crowds of folks in their Sunday best stream out of a small church into the sunlight, smiling. One of the last shots in the montage is of a mosque in Turkey, where, as the camera slowly and reverently pushes inside, we see a great mass of worshipers cheering up through the open roof of their courtyard as the orchestral score peaks all around them.  I watched this montage, this incredibly manipulative and cheap and propangandistic montage, and I cried.

I cried, I think, because the montage reminded me of the pictures and videos of the people in Iran that we keep seeing on the Internet, the grainy, blurred photos and low resolution cell phone videos of the big crowds marching through the streets and fighting, the protesters wearing green ribbons and black scarves and red blood, all of them marching in crowds to face their enemies and win the battle.  I’ve wanted to feel something when I watched the videos or saw the pictures on the Internet but I haven’t felt anything yet — I’ve been waiting for a feeling to come, hoping for one.  When I saw Armageddon on TV, I felt something from it and cried and as I felt something and cried, I thought of the thing on the Internet, it reminded me of them, the resonance between the images, the shared aspects and characteristics.  Now, when I see the videos online, when I see the new images of pitched battles in the street that seem to stream in fresh every minute, I don’t think of their burgeoning revolution and I don’t think of a  biblical Armageddon, I think of The Matrix: Revolutions and I think of Armageddon; I think of Independence Day, I think of War of the Worlds, the crowds of people in those movies who may not seem to share many things in common but are united by the spectacle, by the watching and the looking and the viewing.  After crying twice at Armageddon, to kind of come down from such an intense experience, I watched an episode of the celebrity-biography-product-placement television series Iconoclasts starring actor/activist Sean Penn and narrative nonfiction-ist Jon Krakauer.  In one part of the episode, Sean Penn, between moments of looking scruffy and moments of looking pensive and moments of looking scruffy and pensive, described the horrors of a trip he had taken to Iraq and the things he had seen there.  He said, “If you saw the movie War of The Worlds with Tom Cruise, that’s literally what the children of Iraq have faced in the cities, is that they’ve actually seen the alien beasts coming in from the skies and killing them.”  In an interview from the same year with the website fxguide.com, Michael Bay, the director of Armageddon, discussed the realistic quality of movies today:

fxg: In general, are movies as good as they used to be?

MB:Things are more real now, more photo real. Look at the 70s and the 80s. Visual effects opened up a whole new world. Maybe there’s over-saturation. We’ve almost seen everything. In the 70s, Steven Spielberg invented dinosaurs. Now he’s hitting me in the leg. Why? Because he’s never seen robots doing that before. It’s hard to tell a fresh story now.

Of course, when Sean Penn is saying that life in Iraq is “literally” like the movie War of The Worlds with Tom Cruise, he doesn’t mean “literally,” and when Michael Bay is talking about our movies being “more real now, more photo real,” he’s talking about movies in which giant anthropomorphic robot cars battle with other giant anthropomorphic robot cars and interact with footage of real human actors that is shot against blue screens and composited into carefully production designed digital war zones that are texture mapped with high resolution photographs of real locations, the filmed explosions and the virtual explosions all around them blending in the frame, the real filmed footage of dirt and fire and water mixing with computer particle simulations of the same.  That “real” that Michael Bay is talking about is only real in appearance and in the emotion we feel when we watch it, real in the sense of a more perfect illusion; not “real” but realistic.  This sensibility has seeped into the “real” world that we live in today, though, and not just for Spicoli and the director of Bad Boys.  There were breathless reports last week which spread like virtual wildfire from Twitter to major bloggers and some news organizations that there were three million protesters in the streets of Tehran after the election — it now seems that figure was unrealistic and it’s more likely that the crowd numbered in the hundreds of thousands, which is still of course a significant number but not the same.  Maybe that’s propaganda but maybe it’s just the hyperbole wrought by Michael Bay and Peter Jackson and the Wachowski brothers, the hyperbole of computer generated special effects, since when the digital crowds in our popular movies can and so often do number in the millions, masses of reproduced people which swell to fill ever wider and bigger screens,  it makes us believe that they can in real life, too.  This is the art of war in the age of Transformers.

One might say that all of this stuff about aesthetics is beside the point, that to talk about stupid Hollywood action movies now, at a time when oppressed people are really dying for good and important things that they believe in, is callous and unfeeling and wrong.  I feel weird responding to that imaginary criticism that I’m throwing at myself as a rhetorical device because I do think there’s some truth to it and I feel uncomfortable saying these kinds of things and feeling these things while real people my own age die in the streets of their broken country bravely standing up for ideals and principles and beliefs, while they die in ways which maybe aren’t so complicated and maybe don’t need to be deconstructed by bourgeois assholes like me.  I feel uncomfortable about it but this thing I’m saying and doing here is all I know to say and do about “the situation” and this is what we as the wired Western middle class are supposed to do to end tyranny and support freedom, right?  This is what we’ve been told, that we’re supposed to express ourselves on our blogs and Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, we’re supposed to “try to understand the situation” and “participate in this moment” and “create a dialogue.”  I don’t really know how to do that, though, I’m not much of a follower (I’m not even on Twitter) but I’m also not Edward R. Murrow or Ghandi or Biz Stone, I’m not a revolutionary like any of them and I don’t have any fantasy of being one; I’m just a person who watches things and thinks about them too much.

When I was in college, I went to see a screening of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised with one of my roommates, a Colombian-American guy with a well-worn Che Guevara t-shirt.  I’m not a very political person myself — the closest I got to activism in college was getting wasted at a Howard Dean benefit — but I thought the movie sounded interesting and it was free, so why not?   As I watched it, I was surprised by how moving it was, how powerful, the feelings that it gave me that I hadn’t been getting elsewhere.  After the movie ended, as we left the theater in the dark, I had that dark theater feeling that you have sometimes after watching a movie that moves you, that inexpressible something that makes you feel changed and different, the weight of the images assumed into your body.  When we stepped into the lobby, my roommate ran into some friends of his, a small group of South Americans or South American-Americans who I didn’t know that well but who I had seen around at parties and maybe done shots with or something, shared in the communion of bad music and warm beer and Doritos.  My roommate talked to them in Spanish for a minute and I stood there all awkward white guy with his hands in his pocket and then we left them there.  In the parking lot on the way to the car, my roommate explained to me that they were protesting the movie, that they disagreed with its heroic portrayal of Chavez, that they thought it was one-sided, that it wasn’t telling the whole truth.  We drove home in silence and the feeling that I was having then was also inexpressible and powerful but it wasn’t the good feeling I had had before, the triumphant feeling, it was something different, something worse.  I felt that I couldn’t have any real opinion of what was true or not, who was right or wrong, because I had to admit to myself that honestly all I really knew about this whole country Venezuela and all of its people and history was contained in this two hour documentary I had just seen minutes before, this documentary with images which convinced me of this one thing that I thought was the truth, that made me feel this way that felt good and true and right, but then there were these good people here saying another thing entirely, these living breathing people from my own area code who said that the images I saw were lies, and what should I believe, what could I, how could I?  It was the feeling of not knowing how to feel, of not being sure anymore, faithless.

I want to know how to feel now, I want to be sure, I don’t want to be conflicted.  I don’t want the empty faithless feeling, I want the full feeling that I see other people my age having, the full feeling that makes them change their social media accounts to Tehran time to “interfere with the government” and makes them change their profile pictures to images of hands wrapped in green ribbon, that inspires all of this passive resistance from them, maybe emphasis on the “passive” and not the resistance but I want that feeling that they have and I don’t want to be cynical about it and make stupid jokes about passive resistance and so I look at the videos on Youtube and I read the messages on Twitter, because that’s what I’m supposed to do, that’s what I’ve been told is the way to participate, to read the messages dedicated to tomorrow’s children and watch the videos being uploaded from the streets, see the truth in them.  You see the truth by watching the videos, people say on their blogs, there are thousands of the videos posted every day to Youtube and people tweet and retweet them, blog and reblog, spreading their truth like viruses.  Nico Pitney, whose Huffington Post blog is one of the most popular aggregators of information about what’s “happening” in Iran, recently posted a Youtube video from a young Iranian-American documentarian:

10:54 AM ET — Rage against the machine. An Iranian-American writes: “In my spare time, I make short documentaries and music videos, and my 22 year old cousin in Iran asked that I make a video for him with his favorite song. I just spoke with him and he told me that his friends and him are watching it before they go out to protest. He was stepping out the door to protest when I spoke with him just a few minutes ago. A lot of Iranians from Iran rely on huffingtonpost.com for their information. If you could somehow post this on your website and get this out to the youth in Iran, it would mean a lot.”

I don’t know how to feel about this.  The most prominent features of the video, besides the blaring soundtrack, are the two digital effects that are kneaded through the already familiar compilation of videos and pictures of the uprising, the two effects, the flickering fake film grain and the jittery camera shake, this digital patina of faux-authenticity added to the videos after the fact by their editor, as if the footage he had pulled down off of Youtube wasn’t enough, as if the images had to be made more mythic, more powerful, more more more.   It’s both touching and frightening, this Rage Against The Machine video, it’s like it’s made in the belief that the Velvet Revolution was really all based on some songs by Lou Reed and John Cale, that power chords can be as strong as battering rams.  You imagine this guy in his bedroom trying to make this thing that his cousin has asked him for, a talisman to inspire this person he loves and make him strong and keep him safe, and the only way that he knows to do that is through the conventions of popular music videos, through this artifice and stylization, the only thing that he knows to do is make a Rage Against The Machine video on Youtube, make the best Rage Against The Machine video on Youtube, a video that his cousin and his friends can watch full screen with speakers cranked before rushing out to the barricades and fighting the Basji, a video that will protect them like armor.  Here it is, the aesthetics of Hollywood warfare not only used to describe the uprising but also to inspire it, to nurture it, to get the young fighters pumped up before they rush into the streets to do battle, Mortal Kombat before mortal combat.  The technique used in the Rage Against The Machine video is the same technique Michael Bay used in Armageddon, in the montage that made me cry the second time. Michael Bay, in that montage, appropriated a “vérité” photographic image from Robert Frank’s famous photo book The Americans but instead of using it as is, he changed it, he recast it, reshot it, colorized it, animated it, soundtracked it, added all of this extra artifice to make it more real than the real, a shot that you couldn’t be ambivalent about, a shot that would make you feel the way you were supposed to feel and no other way, none.

I want to know how to feel so I watch the videos and read the discussions, the reblogs and the retweets.  There’s been a lot of discussion through the Twitter tag #CNNFail about the failure, in the eyes of bloggers and Twitterers, of cable news to adequately cover the uprising, people complaining how this revolution was not being televised.  I think these protesters (the American, virtual protesters, not the real Iranians bleeding in their streets) are wrong, though, or at least misguided, hopped up on the buzz of their technology and distracted from the facts.  The outraged criticisms that they made through #CNNFail are based in morality but it seems to me that this is really a formal concern, this has to do with aesthetics — this revolution is not being televised because it’s not televisual.  How do you make round the clock television coverage of an event when you can’t generate any video or images of it, when you can’t go out into the streets to get soundbites, when your satellite trucks aren’t able to run and your internet connection is crippled by the government or by popular overuse, when your correspondents are expelled or arrested or live in fear of being expelled and arrested or something worse?  When all the footage you have is poor quality, provenance unknown, truth not guaranteed?  When you have to append caveats and qualifiers to everything you say and show, since you have no idea what it really means or even what it is?  How do you do create quality American television of the standards we the people and our advertisers expect in such an environment?  Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan posted what he called “The Most Staggering Footage Yet,” a video of a crowd of protesters pushing back police in the streets, a cell phone video that’s lower resolution than Youtube, a video in which you have to literally squint to even make out what’s going on.  How do you create quality American television if no one’s going to watch it?  The video that you watch and read about today is the video of Neda, Neda, everyone is talking about her, Neda, we give  her a single name as if we know her just because we saw a video of her dying (a video of her dying) and read her Wikipedia page, but the video seems too graphic to be shown on broadcast television (CNN ran a blurred out version today, the NBC Nightly News froze the frame as she started to bleed and turned the image to black and white) and even if it weren’t, what could the networks do to fill all their airtime, show their clip over and over again the way you refresh your browser window?  No, they couldn’t, it’s not television, it’s an Internet video, it operates in different ways, and this is going to sound callous and heartless and just awful but the way people are talking about watching the Neda video and how hard it is to watch and how it stays with you even when you don’t want it to…it reminds me of how people talked about “Two Girls, One Cup,” another popular internet video, another “iconic image” that was “so hard to watch.”  I know, just hate me for having this stupid, ugly, dirty thought, I hate myself for it.  I don’t know how to feel.  The video of Neda has 120,000 hits on Youtube and the video of Susan Boyle on America’s Got Talent has almost 69 million.  What if the revolution is televised and it gets horrible ratings, what then?  I watch the Neda video and I can understand how and why it’s sad but I don’t feel sad when I see it, I don’t feel anything, yet I’m still scared of The Sixth Sense, the scenes with the dead children, I never turn to that when it’s on cable, I can’t watch it, and Armageddon made me cry twice.

In a recent New York Times Magazine column entitled “Lights! Camera! Inaction!” Virginia Heffernan criticized contemporary American film and television for failing to represent the experience of technology in modern life, for not showing how completely woven computers and the Internet are through our everyday existence.  In this light, I wonder what the best movie of this Iranian uprising would look like, the most true film?  I don’t think it could be a Michael Bay production — it’s too foreign, there aren’t enough big set pieces, what role could Steve Buscemi play?  If I imagine the movie, I think part of it would involve Andrew Sullivan sitting in a captain’s chair in the middle of this gleaming white control room like in The Matri and reading aloud the poems and quotations he posts in between Twitter updates, the words of Merton and Auden and Twain and the Sufi mystics, bellowing these poems in his clipped British accent like they’re incantations, spells, the magic of language, the wonder and dread.  This footage of him, pristine wide-screen well lit HD stuff, would be intercut with all the cell phone videos we’re seeing of what it’s like there on the ground, videos randomly selected from Youtube and presented chopped into achronological fragments with little or no context given.  The videos would be in Farsi, of course, and subtitled in English, but the images and subtitles wouldn’t be all we’d be seeing on the screen, since also there would be a constant snowstorm of messages in both English and Farsi, tweets and IMs, their green text fading in and then fading out all over the picture plane — think some blend of mid-sixties Godard and It’s On With Alexa Chung.  The opacity of the images would be automated on a variable determined by how much they had been linked to and passed around — the videos that had been reblogged more would be clearer and easier to see and the other, less popular truths would blend into them, creating blurry palimpsests in which clear shapes are difficult to discern.

That doesn’t work, though, obviously, that’s not the kind of movie people will eat popcorn to and rent from Netflix or Blockbuster — I don’t think Ebert would give it the thumbs up.  The Iranian uprising is a movie in the first person plural, which is to say that it’s not a movie at all, that it appears now that it can’t adequately be rendered with the forms and conventions that we have available to us — its poetics are problematic, it’s too polyphonic, there are so many voices and so much information that our artifice can’t support it, our structures strain to hold it all together and then collapse.  There is the sense that the revolution can’t be televised or filmed, that the narrative forms we have are inadequate to represent all of the stuff that’s coming in.  Everybody who’s actively following the Iranian uprising is gripped in this hysteria of realism — not the real but the realism, the composite real, thousands of images and videos and descriptions of the real that are uploaded every day from thousands of discrete and anonymous sources and blended together in a soup of data which is fed to you from your chosen source by RSS.  A month after September 11th, James Wood wrote an essay in the Guardian called “Tell me how does it feel?”:

But this idea – that the novelist’s task is to go on to the street and figure out social reality – may well have been altered by the events of September 11, merely through the reminder that whatever the novel gets up to, the “culture” can always get up to something bigger. Ashes defeat garlands. If topicality, relevance, reportage, social comment, preachy presentism, and sidewalk-smarts – in short, the contemporary American novel in its current, triumphalist form – are novelists’ chosen sport, then they will sooner or later be outrun by their own streaking material. Fiction may well be, as Stendhal wrote, a mirror carried down the middle of a road; but the Stendhalian mirror would explode with reflections were it now being walked around Manhattan.

For who would dare to be knowledgeable about politics and society now? Is it possible to imagine Don DeLillo today writing his novel Mao II – a novel that proposed the foolish notion that the terrorist now does what the novelist used to do, that is, “alter the inner life of the culture”? Surely, for a while, novelists will be leery of setting themselves up as analysts of society, while society bucks and charges so helplessly. Surely they will tread carefully over their generalisations. It is now very easy to look very dated very fast.

Are the forms now broken, can we no longer represent everything because there’s just too much of it, because we can’t write fast enough to not be dated?  I don’t know how to feel about anything but I don’t trust James Wood to tell me how, I do know that, thank God, I can be sure of some things, it’s a small comfort.  In his essay, James Wood made several bitchy comments about Don DeLillo’s Mao II, a novel which describes, among other things, an American woman watching live television footage of the streets of Tehran in the wake of the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini, his supporters filling the screen in a cloud of grief.  “The future belongs to crowds,” the most famous line in Mao II, comes at the end of the introductory section, after a sublime and breathless description of a mass Moonie wedding in a baseball stadium.  When DeLillo wrote that line in 1989 about the future and the crowds, it was a warning, a poetic call to alarm in the time of the fatwah against Salman Rushdie.  It was crystallized fear and loathing about the awesome and terrifying power of mass crowds amplified by mass media, kind of like the way Kierkegaard, also thinking of the crowds and the media, said in 1847,

The crowd is untruth. And I could weep, in every case I can learn to long for the eternal, whenever I think about our age’s misery, even compared with the ancient world’s greatest misery, in that the daily press and anonymity make our age even more insane with help from “the public,” which is really an abstraction, which makes a claim to be the court of last resort in relation to “the truth”; for assemblies which make this claim surely do not take place. That an anonymous person, with help from the press, day in and day out can speak however he pleases (even with respect to the intellectual, the ethical, the religious), things which he perhaps did not in the least have the courage to say personally in a particular situation; every time he opens up his gullet – one cannot call it a mouth – he can all at once address himself to thousands upon thousands; he can get ten thousand times ten thousand to repeat after him – and no one has to answer for it; in ancient times the relatively unrepentant crowd was the almighty, but now there is the absolutely unrepentant thing: No One, an anonymous person: the Author, an anonymous person: the Public, sometimes even anonymous subscribers, therefore: No One. No One!

Now, holding all of that stuff in your mind, opening the text and ideas into the different tabs of your mental browser, now juxtapose it with this fragment of Andrew Sullivan’s ecstatic essay about Twitter in the Sunday Times yesterday:

When you review the Twitter stream of the past week, it reads like a stream of constantly shifting consciousness. It is a kind of journalistic pointillism. From a distance it gains heft. It is history rendered in the collective, scattered mind and it has never happened before – millions upon millions of tiny telegram messages sent to the world.

I don’t know how to feel, there’s just too much to deal with, all I can do now is copy and paste these fragments, I don’t have my own words to describe things.  Andrew Sullivan, from his essay: “I felt last week more like a DJ than a journalist, compiling and sampling and remixing the sounds, sights, events and words streaming out of an ever-shifting drama.”  On his blog, he’s frequently used the terms “money quote” and “money shot” to describe the best words and videos he has for describing things, a usage Wikipedia tells me derives from the vocabulary of Hollywood cinema, from the big, powerful scenes in big, powerful movies like Armageddon.  I don’t know how to feel.  How can I be expected come to a conclusion about an event which has no narrative structure?  That’s not fair, I don’t know how to feel, I can’t conclude, okay, I can’t, but I want to, the desire doesn’t go away.  If the forms are broken, can we hold them together with duct tape?  I need the forms, I need the conventions, we need them, how else can meaning be made?  They’re the only things I know how to believe in, these things, please don’t take them away from me, don’t say they’re archaic or obsolete or no longer necessary, don’t say that they’re broken.  The word “iconoclast” doesn’t, in fact, come from an overly reverential Sundance Channel TV show sponsored by Grey Goose and starring Sean Penn and Jon Krakauer but is actually a term which dates to antiquity, to the time of the Byzantine Empire, when images of Christ and the Theotokos and certain saints, if created in a certain form in line with certain artistic conventions, were believed to have magical powers of healing and defense and communion.  Iconoclasm, the destruction of these images, began in the Eighth Century AD.  From a book  about this period, one in paper and ink that I’m holding in my hand:

[Emperor] Leo III seems to have believed that God was displeased with the Byzantines on account of some misdemeanor.  It was widely held at the time that Muslims were Christian heretics, worshiping the same God but in an incorrect way.  Since Muslims had chosen to eschew images in their mosques, and were extraordinarily successful in battle, it was thought that God might be punishing the Byzantines for misusing religious images and falling into idolatry.  The solution appeared simple: to ban the use of religious images in Byzantium and hope for divine approval, which would become apparent through political and military success.

In other words, maybe these iconoclasts, who we think of as image breakers, were really just getting rid of images they thought were already broken, that didn’t have any power anymore, the way that Andrew Sullivan writes on his blog that television is no longer necessary.  “Who needs it?” he writes, posting another Youtube video.  The initial period of iconoclasm actually wasn’t permanent, it was just a trend that was overruled by decree, bringing back the icons.  A few years later, iconoclasm came back into vogue and a few years later it was stopped again, the holy images created and destroyed and recreated and destroyed again as they fell in and out of favor.  In other words, just because right now we feel one way about our images and our forms doesn’t mean we won’t feel another way about them tomorrow, doesn’t mean we won’t miss them when they’re gone and want to bring them back from the dead, doesn’t mean they’re not important past, present, and future, whatever the opinion of the crowds today.

I don’t know how to feel.  At one point while I was writing all of this confused and hysterical stuff, I turned on the TV as a distraction from myself.  I just wanted something inoffensive and quiet on in the background, some white noise to fill the room.  I was in the middle of typing a sentence on my laptop when I heard the announcer say, “What happens when you tell people they can’t see something?  Exactly, they want to see it even more.”  I looked up and saw the source of the voice, a blond woman in a red dress who was talking about censorship and intellectual freedom.  The TV wasn’t on CNN or MSNBC or FOX, though, it wasn’t the news, and the announcer wasn’t talking about Tehran, the media blackout, or the information war, she wasn’t talking about any of those things, no, actually it was an introduction to the music video for “Baby Got Back” on a VH1 Classic marathon of The 100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders.  I don’t know how to feel.

13 Responses to “iconoclasts”

  1. Amy Says:

    You know… this is a great post. One of several. Kudos for your honesty. I came here from the awl a while back and I’ve been reading everything you’ve written since and I think you have a terrific, thoughtful blog. I’ve developed a new appreciation for reality tv because of the stuff you’ve written here. This is the first time I’m commenting though. I don’t comment much. I’m a dreaded lurker. I lurk. Lurky.

    But I would like to say in response to your post here that I think you might be a little too hard on yourself. It’s my belief most humans have a maximum capacity for empathy that when surprassed, triggers an automatic shut-down of the person’s ability to relate and feel. I think that shutting-down phenomenon generally leaves the person confused and guilt-ridden about their lack of empathy, especially if they were raised in a civilized fashion and learned from childhood they are supposed to feel deeply and care about the suffering of others, but the reality seems to be there is only so much acute empathy a human being is capable of feeling before the shutting-down and pulling away and the “I don’t know how to feel” kicks in and it seems to me it is an intrinsically human self-preservation maneuver, an inborn defense mechanism for the emotional epicenter in the brain, and it does not necessarily represent a particular character flaw or lack of kindness in the overwhelmed person.

    But like anything in the human mind, the maximum capacity for empathy is plastic, and it can be manipulated and it can change and grow.

    I was raised in lower class in America and like many lower class kids the television was my babysitter and I was raised in the constant glow and noise and violence of it. My teen years passed in a typical manner in the perpetual media blitz of blockbuster movies, video games, music and television. In 2001 when the towers fell in New York City – since I don’t live in New York City and knew nobody near there – I watched it all impassively on television. I didn’t feel a thing. It resembled a movie too much to feel real to me. The fact I was devoid of emotion about this gigantic American tragedy that seemed epic enough to stop everyone else in their tracks for weeks bothered me somewhat, but I didn’t do much about it at the time as I didn’t know what to do, or even if I should do something. I felt a little guilty but managed to shake it off. I politely, if impassively, watched other people suffer – practically everyone in America it seemed – in the aftermath of 9/11 as they broke with grief and walked around in a daze, stunned by the events.

    On 9/11 I watched the second tower fall while at work. I watched it fall on the television that was positioned on a conference room table and remained on all day with disbelieving coworkers standing around it silently swaying like reeds in a river, and after the second tower fell I went back to my desk and made a business call to a client and when they answered their phone they seemed rather incredulous that I could even think about conducting business on this day considering the epic American tragedy was still unfolding. They practically hung up on me. But for me it never really stopped being business as usual. A couple of years later for reasons unrelated to this (perhaps), I managed to ditch my television. I moved out of the house where the television lived and moved into a new house, a quite isolated one, fully expecting to replace the missing television but somehow never did. The internet quickly replaced the television-shaped hole in my life but you know the internet is a much different experience than television in that you can control what you see a bit better than you can with TV broadcasts, and you are not subjected to the endless repetition of the same images over and over and over like you are when you leave the news on during unfolding violent revolutions, say, and you aren’t exposed in the same way to the usual news media cycles that will feature some asshat screaming offensively ignorant things followed by the array of pundits talking about those offensively ignorant things over and over and over. At least, I’m not.

    I found after a while I stopped going to movies in theaters and instead downloaded the ones I wanted to see and watched them on my tiny laptop screen. I found I naturally began choosing quieter films over the huge violent blockbusters I liked before. Some people, you perhaps, would consider watching movies on a tiny laptop screen to be deficient and lessen significantly the entertainment value of the film, but I’ve learned that for me, watching movies on tiny screens is a kind of emotional self-defense. The images are too tiny to be real and the subconscious chasm between what is real and what isn’t real widens just a little bit more. For me, this is a good thing.

    I’m sure you’ve heard of that theory concerning the brain and dreams that says something like how there are parts your brain (visual perception I think) that are incapable of differentiating your dream visions from scenes in your real life, that everything these parts of the brain experience is “real”.

    I think when a person is exposed too often to mental and emotional irritants they will develop callouses against those irritations and the callouses will be perfectly shaped to protect against those specific irritants. But sometimes being irritated in those specific ways in a controlled environment by skilled artists is considered entertainment. It’s fun. To that end we passively sit back and allow Hollywood flip our emotional triggers for years with their highly manipulated and targeted images and we get used to that, we lean into how they do things, we learn to expect certain narratives to be presented to us in a certain way and if some narratives do not come at us in that way, framed in the way they do it, we are suddenly lost and overwhelmed and left stranded with a tangled knot of unresolved narratives that dissatisfy us deeply, and if we are a decent thoughtful human being, we feel guilty about this, about our inability to handle it, not maybe fully realizing that 1) some things that happen in real life cannot be parsed immediately, only felt until you run out of empathy and the intellectual parsing comes later after the smoke has cleared and 2) we’ve been subjecting ourselves to the equivalent of emotional obedience training, like Pavlov’s doggies – responding to these same (faked) triggers in films and tv for so many years so that when similar stories happen in real life, we are uncomfortable in some fundamental way because we know they’re real this time and that means there’s no one in control, no screenwriter or director behind the scenes shepherding us through this, no one guaranteeing our emotional safety, no one saying we will come through the other side of these bloody events able to dismiss the images and move on with our lives.

    It has been about seven television-free years now for me, and the Iran protests have me in tears almost every day. This is the same chick who stared blankly at the World Trade Center collapsing, and remained largely unresponsive to the aftermath of the tragedy in my own country. Weirdly, I now have enormous empathy for protestors suffering in a country a half a world away with politics I have only a rudimentary understanding of and a religion and language that could not be more foreign to me. I’m now attributing this newfound empathy to the softening of my emotional callouses. For nearly seven years I’ve managed to eliminate some of the irritants that were assaulting me under the guise of entertainment and information on TV and in movies and now when similar epic events happen in real life, it makes me cry.

    • Tim Says:

      TV helps me unwind. I like it because it doesn’t force me to think in the way that reading or real life does. That is why I make a rule of never watching the boob tube before a certain hour – like, say, 5-7 pm (I know that once I’m in that decent it’s very hard to pull myself out of it). I think of TV as a segue from my waking, productive activities to sleep, a bridge my body and mind cross conflating the surreal, fantasy qualities of dreaming while still being half-buttressed by the facts of reality. Reading before bed usually gets me wired up.

      I don’t usually think of television as my nemesis, but its comforting black hole power needs to be kept in check. Everyone knows what it’s like to be addicted to TV, to sublimate our vacancies and longings into marathon tv watching sessions that go on for days, weeks and even months. The mind is a terrible thing to waste, and while endless arguments can be made for tv’s positive influnce on civilization, if we’re not careful it can rob us of those very things in life which we seek to vicariously experience through tv watching in the first place. I think of these life-wasting aspects most when I’m forced to sit through 5 minutes of commercials for products such as The Hoveround Chair, Free Credit Report websites and spurious (and most likely dangerous) all-night energy drinks.

      Congrats on going 7 years without a tv. I don’t think I have the discipline to do something like that. I like feeling connected to everything and everybody, and this is what tv does for me. Without it I feel like a hermit living in the dark ages. What I like most about TV is that watching it is a collective experience. You can rest assured that while you are tuning in to Conan’s monologue, hundreds of thousands (and possibly millions) of people in your time zone are watching it with you. As more and more technologies saturate the market, however, these collective experiences can be expected to shrink, and as they shrink so too will that “bigness” that is projected by a lot of media corporations. What will exist is a lot of niche outlets vying for followers amidst all the chaos of different ways to cure our boredom. Gone will be the days of, “Hey, did you see Carson last night?” (answer: what else would I be watching, there are only, like, 7 channels).

      I hope not. I would hate to see tv die off. It seems to know what I need in the same way the Internet does but without all the cookies and spyware. It sometimes knows what I’m thinking before I even do. Your description forgets to mention this spontaneity about tv, which still has many natural qualities about it despite being conveyed in a very artifical and plastic medium.

      • songsaboutbuildingsandfood Says:

        I feel much the same about the death of TV, I guess (although there are sinister things that you describe about TV even outside of your TV criticism paragraph — “It seems to know what I need in the same way the Internet does but without all the cookies and spyware. It sometimes knows what I’m thinking before I even do.” — I get the comfort, I think, but isn’t that also kind of a scary image? This machine that can read your brain, it sounds like something out of a science fiction novel.) My experience of the Internet is very different from a lot of people’s experience of the Internet. Even people who are roughly the same age and race and class and educational background may have a vastly different experience of the Internet than the one I do, whereas they would not have such a difference in terms of what TV they watch, which is kind of troubling in terms of dialogue and cultural experience. If there is no TV, what will we talk about with coworkers and strangers on the train? I guess…life and stuff, but what a prospect.

      • Kim Says:

        Somebody somewhere wrote recently (and forgive me because I’m paraphrasing here): “The Western mind is a restless mind, vaulting from thought to thought like a beach ball kicked up by the wind. Getting back in touch with ourselves requires turning off our TVs, computers and cell phones and tuning into the Great Nothing, listening to the white noise within us. Because that nothingness, that white noise, is the soul.”

        Since you need tv to help you transition to sleep because it is, as you say, like a, “bridge of consciousness conflating surreal, dreamlike qualities with the half-buttressed facts of reality,” you are very much a Western creature suffering from this restless-mind syndrome. Probably one of the most detrimental aspects of our overdependence on technology and media is that it conditions us to believe that our souls and our consciousnesses exist outside of our minds and bodies. We greatly limit ourselves if we think that we can only connect with our inner-ness through reading, tv watching, talking to somebody on a cell phone or surfing the Internet. Going for a walk can have a powerful mellowing effect, but that effect is limited if one is listening to their iPod as they walk. The sounds of birds chirping, the soft hum of the breeze through the trees and the background sounds of life are much more beautiful and natural than the clamorous music piped into our ears through a pair of iPod speakers. It is this umbilical attachment to all things that nourish or provide a reverb to our alive and active minds that sustains us, but do we even truly know our active minds, are we able to tap our souls and our consciousnesses without a book or any kind of technological aid whatsoever?

        Think about a cat: what does a cat do all day? It can stare out a window for hours. What is it thinking while it is engaged in this watching. I will sometimes look at my feline as she is ensconced next to the window and observe how meditative and peaceful she looks. She seems to achieve a certain type of mental accuity after a while in which her eyes will dart after the slightest movement of a bird off in the distance. As she is building up to this state of keen mental clarity, I wonder if she pieces everything together as she takes it all in, maps all the bird nests in the trees, follows a cloud and tries to predict which direction it will blow across the sky. It’s something we all used to do as children, but have forgotten how to do as adults. It seems silly and childish, yes, but just like everything else in life it takes work to unlock this observational magic.

        We often seem to want to bypass this natural ability to tune into our senses by turning on a tv or computer screen or picking up a book or putting on our earphones and listening to a song we’ve already heard hundreds of times. I don’t know if this is progress or not, I don’t know how to feel about these things. I just had to point them out when I read your arguments in favor of tv and how you use it as a “bridge” every night to come down from wakefulness.

      • songsaboutbuildingsandfood Says:

        It’s weird responding to someone who is actually responding to another commenter and not me, I feel kind of like an intrusive matchmaker or something, but I feel rude letting your comment go unreplied to. Anyway, I agree with a lot of the things you say, Kim, I just think what you propose is a little extreme for me personally. I think there’s a great value in meditation and trying to get to pure consciousness and the experience of nature, and I personally believe in exploring those things often, but I also think that we’re not cats, right? Our brains are much more complex and are able to do much more than cats’ brains can and so I think we should take advantage of them, we should do things that make us humans and not animals. The way you’re describing your cat anthropomorphizes her, the way that all pet owners (including me) think of their animals as having human characteristics when really they don’t, when really we’re just projecting on them our own feelings and personalities. The ability to imagine and fantasize and lose ourselves to ourselves, so to speak, is important (we wouldn’t be able to write without it) but listening to music or reading or watching TV doesn’t necessarily rob us of that ability, I don’t think, and sometimes it can even augment it. People can definitely have too much stimulation but that doesn’t necessarily mean that stimulation is bad in and of itself. That’s my take, at least.

      • Tim Says:

        Adding to what you wrote about cats’ brains – I think Kim also forgets (and probably most importantly) that cats don’t have any understanding of language, they react mostly to sounds, smells, light flashes and instinct. So who can really be sure what is going on up in those brains of theirs while they are sitting in a window or perking their ears to some unheard sound. Since we are thinking creatures as you say, the necessity to have higher forms of stimulation makes staring out of a window or watching the clouds seem kind of ridiculous. Of course there are many philosophies related to meditation and activities or lifestyles (whatever you want to call them) that emphasize the organic over the artificial, but people forget that these philosophies and lifestyles are themselves sophisticated and man-made (and hence artificial). But our need for narratives, heroism, moral edification and elucidation – not to mention the voluminous and copious information our brains require daily – kind of makes star or cloud gazing seem like a waste of time. Sure, it is good to purge the mind and soul fairly often with some quiet time or a stroll along the beach, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that the empty peaceful feeling we feel while doing these things (or not doing other things) somehow constitutes the soul. I’m sure some people’s souls are very tortured and violent, and they would probably describe their inner-ness as being more like a din than like that feeling one gets while nursing a cup of coffee.

  2. songsaboutbuildingsandfood Says:

    Thank you so much for this, it was touching and beautifully written and very interesting. I don’t know that I feel the same way that you do about a lot of these things, but either way, it’s instructive to see how someone from a similar background with similar experiences (I had an anecdote about being in high school on 9/11 and being happy because I got to watch TV instead of doing a physics lab but I cut it) feels about these same issues.

    Hrmm, here is what I would say in response, I think. All narrative art is, in some way, an abuse of our empathy, right? Really affecting art is affecting because it puts us in this mimetic trance and pushes the button for our sense of empathy probably more than it should, in the way that you describe. Those abuses happen for different reasons — the movie Armageddon does it in order to make money, a propaganda film does it to convince people to believe something, a really good novel or film does it in order to try to make us feel something or truly imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes.

    Like, this is an issue I feel very conflicted about, because as a writer, I know that I am constantly abusing the empathy of my readers in a lot of ways, from word choice and sentence/paragraph/essay structure to the use of rhetorical techniques (consciously repeating the phrase “I don’t know how to feel” in this essay, for ex.) to the various ways that I invoke scenes from my life. To give just one example, that last post I did about watching television with my grandmother — it gives the impression that we were alone together this whole time watching TV, when actually my father was with us in all of the scenes I describe, making the experience a lot less difficult and painful than I render it as being. Even if all of things I describe tangibly happened the way I describe them and even if I feel like I’m representing an emotional truth that existed between us, I’m not telling the whole truth and I’m not doing that because my reader wouldn’t feel as deeply about that story, it wouldn’t be as affecting. To give another example, in this thing, I make it sound like watching The Revolution Will Not Be Televised caused this huge crisis of faith for me, but really I think that night I thought about it for about thirty seconds during the drive home and then I forgot about it and really didn’t think about it until yesterday when I needed a bridge from one section of this essay to another, till it served a practical purpose, and I really probably won’t think about it again because it really wasn’t an important experience in my life at all, not the way I pretend that it is in this post. To tell those stories in the best (read: most affecting) way, I abuse the truth in order to abuse the empathy of my reader, I try to make my reader feel more empathy than they should. You tell me I shouldn’t be so hard on myself and I feel so good because I’ve written something that made you feel something deeply enough to write such a response but then I also feel guilty because I’m not really that hard on myself, because being hard on myself is a rhetorical device used to write an essay. I like to believe that I’m doing all these things for a positive reason, that to express myself in an artistically resonant way like this is a good and positive thing because it allows people to think about things and feel things that they maybe hadn’t or couldn’t before reading it, which hopefully is what happened for you, but of course there’s also other things in it, writerly ego, the desire to impress people, to make them like me. I like to believe that my writerly abuses and falsehoods are for good reasons, but in some ways I’m no different than Michael Bay.

    I lived abroad last year and because of this I watched a lot of my videos/shows/movies on my tiny laptop screen. I actually feel the opposite way you do about the chasm between the Internet and television and the size of the screens. I feel that on the Internet, there’s always more data, always more content, and for someone who has an obsessive personality like I do, that’s a dangerous thing, there’s more than I need there, whereas TV is limited and broken into measured, discrete chunks. There’s also the ADD aspect of it — to truly feel things and be affected by them, I think you have to focus on them deeply, and when I’m on the Internet, I have, like most people, serious problems with focus and concentration. Last year, during the process of watching a two hour movie on my laptop, I would probably stop six or seven times to check my e-mail or look up some thought I had. Since moving back to the country, I’ve lived in a place with a TV (a really big TV, actually) and I really like it because it allows me to use the Internet less and get away from the computer and I think using the Internet less and getting away from the computer is a big key to me being a happier person, that cutting my internet usage makes me much happier and has a much more positive effect on me than watching less TV (the irony, though, is that the thing that makes me feel the most fulfilled (writing on here) is something I have to use the Internet to do)

    I’m someone who really loves and feels strongly about narrative art and who felt this way before becoming a person who made it, so I have no doubt my notion of empathy is calloused in the way you describe, probably even more so. Like, gulp, caring about Iran was really only a function of me writing about caring about Iran and so I wrote this thing about caring about Iran and now that I’ve finished writing about it, I will probably think about caring about Iran less, not more, which is maybe not the impression that the long and emotional keyed-up prose of this essay creates. When I write something this long and emotional, I always feel weird and often don’t want to even post it when it’s finally finished, because I’ve spent all this time composing and feeling these things and by the time I’m done writing it and it’s ready for other people to read it, I’ve worked out whatever crisis of faith I was dealing with, I’ve reached a resolution in myself through the process of writing, and so looking at the post feels like looking at this detached version of myself from the distant past, months or years ago, this person who was so emotional about these things that I don’t feel so deeply about anymore, even though I only wrote this over the last few days.

    (p.s. You’re not dreaded at all! Personally, I’m horrible at commenting on blogs, even ones I really like, so I understand completely and thank you all the more for what you wrote.)

  3. R J Keefe Says:

    “…this person who was so emotional about these things that I don’t feel so deeply about anymore, even though I only wrote this over the last few days.”

    It would appear that you have mastered the first step in learning how you ought to feel.

    You’re a writer, an observer, perhaps not a participant. (So many of the big mid-Twentieth Century writer-participants — Mailer, Hemingway, McCarthy — weren’t very effective, for all their flailing, although they were all great writers.)

    You say that you think too much about things. In fact, though, most people aren’t capable of thinking as much as you do, and they could never have conceived this very rich essay on, among other things, the corruptions strewn by popular culture that the Iranian resistance is exposing.

    Bravo!

  4. songsaboutbuildingsandfood Says:

    Well thanks so much, RJ. Sometimes I think I let this observer part of myself be an excuse for not actively participating in REAL HUMAN LIFE and everything the way that I feel that I should, but it’s always nice when people make me feel like less of a jerkoff for doing so. Bravo yourself!

  5. Joe Clark Says:

    The answer to the question “Whoever could direct a movie about Iran ’09?” is rather obvious: Michael Winterbottom.

  6. songsaboutbuildingsandfood Says:

    I know he has experience in that general area but I don’t think he would do it crazy or stupid enough to be accurate to the Internet situation. My choice would be Richard Kelly.

  7. Mar Says:

    There’s something in what Kim says – something about being able to be in your environment without augmenting it via media – that I agree with. I don’t think people shouldn’t engage with media but it’s good to be able to go without it and not umbilical cord it all the time. A lot of the time I’ll get bored even when I am walking and start texting or something. I disagree that needing to talk to other people is bad, though – I think most people in our culture are too isolated and need to practice actually interacting with other people in person and without props. Also, not sure about what the soul actually is. But a healthy person should be able to sit still for ten minutes and not think about anything in particular, and if you are afraid to do that, what are you avoiding?

    • songsaboutbuildingsandfood Says:

      I agree with all of that, although I think if you can sit for ten minutes without thinking about anything, you’ve probably reached some level of meditation that most people can’t. I’d like to get there someday.


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