Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Return of the truly political: the idiotic wisdom of DK

 With a bit of distance and time, this piece now appears to me as an angry, off-the-cuff rant. Nonetheless, I still feel like it contains a kernel of truth. As has become customary over the last few posts, most of my general ideas and inspiration come from the work of Slavoj Zizek - in this case I have to mention his 2002 book "Welcome to the Desert of the Real", published by Verso.

How does one "be alive" in our post-political world?

We are all guaranteed life. The state apparatus' main function today is to keep its subjects as alive and healthy as possible, so that they can commit as much of themselves as possible to the production of goods and services. So that they may give themselves wholeheartedly to the capitalist mode of production, to the "market".

In this way, we, as formerly political subjects, have become objects of life-administration. The great political struggle of the 20th century is over: neo-liberal market economics won, and communism lost.

But what is the price of this victory?

Foucault explains it better in The History of Sexuality Vol 1 (Penguin Australia 2008:138):
"Now it is over life, through its unfolding, that power establishes its domination; death is power's limit, the moment that escapes it; death becomes the most secret aspect of existence, the most "private"."
On suicide (139):
"This determination to die, strange and yet so persistent and constant in its manifestations, and consequently so difficult to explain as being due to particular circumstances or individual accidents, was one of the first astonishments of a society in which political power had assigned itself the task of administering life."
Enter terrorism, high school massacres, and a whole host of other phenomena. The only way to truly rebel against this life-giving power seems to be through gruesome, spectacular death. It seems that the only way to truly be alive, in the sense of removing oneself from the objectifying structure and becoming re-subjectivised, is to kill and to die.

So what are the alternatives? If my four posts of Ultrarunning and Capitalist ideology have proven anything, I hope that it is that running long distances is not a true escape from power, but a method of admitting ourselves to it more willingly, of quelling our wishes to resist it. It is endemic transgression. The same goes for many other apparently rebellious past-times from rockclimbing, to drinking, listening to alternative music, dressing like a hipster and so on.

The peculiar and sad thing about ultra-running is that it offers itself as the only way to truly be alive today, in an existentialist sense, through struggle and suffering. But where does this struggle and suffering ultimately go? What end does it fulfill? Nowhere, nothing, none.. The participant expends a huge amount of energy and increases their fitness. And then goes back to work. It offers life but gives ultimate non-life.

So what is the alternative? The alternative?

A return of the truly political. Struggle and suffering NOT committed to the narcissistic pursuit of heath and individual self-fulfillment, but committed to the betterment of humanity. There is a fine line between pointless, endemic transgression (e.g. ultrarunning) and ultimate annihilation (e.g. terrorism). That line can only be the pursuit of a truly utopian and, let's not be afraid to say it, communist, vision of democracy.

The alternative is radical emancipatory politics.

In a twisted way, Dean Karnazes, the supreme ideologist of ultrarunning, is right when he says that:
 "Most people never get there. They're afraid or unwilling to demand enough of themselves and take the easy road, the path of least resistance. But struggling and suffering, as I now saw it, were the essence of a life worth living."
What he unfortunately misses is that we must choose the ultimate end of this "struggling and suffering" wisely.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Reality as fictive reality: sex, Indonesian genocide, Ann Trason and other topics

“As soon as we renounce fiction and illusion, we lose reality itself; the moment we subtract fictions from reality, reality itself loses its discursive-logical consistency.” - Slavoj Zizek in Tarrying With the Negative.

Let me open with a somewhat personal divulgence. When I make love, the experience is conditioned by the erotic scenes of the many Spanish art-house films I've seen over the years.
It's quite hard to pin down the exact nature of this conditioning. Sometimes, images from the scenes are brought into conscious thought, and I unwittingly reenact the sensual movements that I've watched so many times before. On other occasions, I'll sing the background music in my head, and inadvertently give myself a consistent rhythm. But most commonly, I'm absorbed by the act itself - the effect of countless hours of watching bare, sweaty flesh sliding on itself (in between intricate, melodramatic plot-lines) is purely subconscious. So the conditioning is somewhat fluid - it depends, it changes.

One of the most common pop arguments against watching porn is that it causes the male viewers to copy the self-indulgent and at times sadistic practices of the male stars when they engage in sexual relations of their own. The problem with this argument is its use of the word "copy" (and synonyms). It tends to create an image of a man in the bedroom with a girl, on the cusp of the act, thinking "ok, so, how do most pornos begin?" and then later on trying to consciously reenact the particular techniques that he's seen on his laptop.

It opens a gaping hole in the argument, which can be easily widened: "I don't think of porn while I'm having sex".
That's why the relatively simple and psychologically obvious idea that watching porn subconsciously conditions its viewer's sexual behaviour is a lot more important for understanding its potentially negative effects.

Sometimes, though, people will violently materialise conscious fictions.

So it was with Anwar Congo and his associates, in Indonesia, in 1966. As described by Zizek in Living in the End Times (Verso: 2011), today, Anwar's group are respected politicians, but in that year, they killed 2.5 million alleged communist sympathisers. On a talk show in 2007, this genocide-perpetrator remarked that the "killings were inspired by gangster movies" (pg 322). A documentary was made about these peculiar characters a couple of years later, and the film's publicity material explained it thus:
"...when we realised what kind of movie Anwar and his friends wanted to make about the genocide, the reenactments became more elaborate. And so we offered Anwar and his friends the opportunity to dramatize the killings using film genres of their choice (western, gangster, musical). That is, we gave them the chance to script, direct and star in the scenes they had in mind when they were killing people (quoted in ibid, 322-3)."
This is an extreme example of a phenomena that is endemic to the human condition. Because while Anwar and his buddies needed to "experience their reality itself as a fiction (ibid, 323)" to distance themselves from the sheer brutality and horror of their actions, we in the post-political developed countries do so in order to tolerate the banality and meaninglessness of our own.

But there is a small gap in the analogy. While many people will make direct associations between the content of movies, videoclips, etc... and their own actions in the course of their daily work/lives, we most commonly experience our realities through the fictive aspects of other real actions.

How often are metaphors from racing and fighting evoked in the course of our daily lives? A US presidential candidate delivers a knockout punch in a decisive debate, while we just get over the line with meeting our Key Performance Indicators at work, while two branches of a store go head to head to deliver the best results.

An interesting example was given by Dan Bleakman, a friend of mine and founding father of Ultra168, when he wrote about the birth of his daughters in 2011. The title of the post itself, referring to caring for his twins (and dare I say, life in general), lends itself nicely to my point: The ultra-marathon that never ends.

"Indeed, I’ve barely taken a step running since last Monday 12th December when these two little things were born, but the constant 3-4 hour cycle of looking after the babies reminded me massively of my recent run at GNW. When broken down into its rawest form, an ultra is about getting from CP to CP, and managing that transition as smoothly as possible.
Looking after these tiny little things is kind of a similar process. We wake them up, change them, feed them, wrap them and then go back to sleep. That’s the transition phase. Then we have 2 hours or so when we’re moving between CPs before getting ready for the next one. And then repeat the process 8 times daily. Sometimes however that process doesn’t go to plan, so we have to adapt, just like you would in a race. Indeed, maybe as part of antenatal classes they should make you go out and run a miler!"
 "Life is like one big race", as I've read many times before.

Another example is given by a piece written by legendary ultra-marathoner Ann Trason: Growing Up at Western States. In it, she elaborately compares the experience of running a 100 mile race to living through 100 years from birth to death:
"This might seem really silly, but I look at Western States as life in a day. The start is like being born...The first 16 miles I run like a child, becoming a teenager...I have this adolescent confidence that I can do anything. I am totally hyper until about mile 20, where, approaching adulthood, I start to worry about what I'm going to do with my life. Then I hit the canyons and its like having a midlife crisis...Then I'm 50 years old, cruising along, looking forward to retirement, which is eventually marked by a great downhill section at mile 60 (in Running Through the Wall, ed. Neil Jamison, 2003, pg 201-2)."
 And so on.

But there is an obvious difference between Dan's experience and Ann's. For the latter, we have to rearrange the abovementioned the popular adage  -  in her case "A race is like one big life".

The similarities between the two are more important: both Dan and Ann (and everyone else in the world) experience reality (be it caring for twins, running 100 miles, working, etc...) through the fictions constructed around other real actions.

Dan talks about caring for his daughters in relation to running ultras being about "getting from checkpoint to checkpoint". While this is true in the sense that we need to break-down the distance in order to mentally deal with it, this idea conceals the fact that on a concrete, fundamental level, running an ultramarathon is just a series of meaningless, continuous steps or even just a set of repeated muscular contractions. We play mind tricks, we impose fictive characteristics on this basic reality in to render it livable - indeed, Ann transcribes every-day reality into a meta-narrative about the stages of life. Again, these stages themselves are somewhat fictive, constructed - many adolescents lack confidence and are not hyper, many people don't have midlife crises, some don't get to retire until later than 65 and, obviously, most people don't live to the age of 100! Even if someone's life does correspond to Ann's idea in its general structure, there are thousands of individual days, thousands of individual moments that are not, in themselves, constitutive of this grand narrative.

To repeat myself one more time, when we are doing something, the way we understand this "doing" is conditioned by our experiences of doing something else. But, as I hope the above examples have shown, we are never thinking of the brutal reality of that something else, rather we are conceptualising its reduced, idealised qualities.

Hopefully, this has rendered Zizek's quote somewhat comprehensible and taken it a few steps further: “As soon as we renounce fiction and illusion, we lose reality itself; the moment we subtract fictions from reality, reality itself loses its discursive-logical consistency.”

There seems to be a somewhat Hegelian dialectical movement going on here - from abstract (the reality itself) to negative (the fiction) to concrete (the reality experienced as fictive reality) that deserves a greater expansion. Fodder for a future post, perhaps.


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Ultrarunning and capitalist ideology 4: the work of ignoring

"The pain of training is nothing compared to the pain of not reaching your potential." - Josh Cox, US 50km record holder.

An incredibly inspiring statement.

We train for the purpose of reaching our potential as a runner, for the purpose of becoming the fastest runner that we can possibly become given our material circumstances.

But if someone actually manages to reach their utmost potential as a runner, what happens? They are the very best that they possibly can be - but unless they are endowed with incredible genes, they are still just one insignificant runner out of many millions.

It's a huge ego-boost, and symptomatic of our ideology of individuality. It allows the person to tell themselves that they are the best (that they can be) while remaining absolutely nothing, thereby giving them the impetus to keep on running, thereby allowing them to tolerate their otherwise intolerable existence.

This injunction to "reach your potential" works on another level.

Potential for what? The potential to become an incredibly efficient machine, which devotes large amounts of time to repetitive, monotonous movement. The potential to become a mere object - not thinking, simply moving as quickly as possible.

Our "potential" in this sense is the absolute limit of our subjectivity - what we avoid in the countless hours of mind-numbing training is the deepening of our knowledge, of our understanding, of our ability to think outside the dominant logic. 

Sure, we say that we have awesome mind-opening experiences while running long distances, allowing us to view the universe from an entirely different perspective and empathise with others, etc, etc, etc... However, from what I've observed over the last few years, the general spread of ultra-runners seems to be like the general spread of the rest of the population, but with a few twists -  the average salary is bumped up by about $30,000 and many of the people have a liberal and eco-flavour (without being entirely committed to the ideas of radical democracy or environmentalism). So these apparently "mind-opening experiences" don't seem to generate much more than a vague kind of "yuppification", that is, if those liberal-bourgeois values weren't there in the first place.

It's almost as if we try to fulfill our banal, objective, mechanistic potential in order to avoid striving for our potential to "realise our full humanity", to emancipate our thought, to penetrate ideology.

It's like Luminosity, the online brain-training program. According to the brief YouTube ad that I am repeatedly forced to watch, the user completes a series of simple game-like exercise to improve their mind's processing speed, attention and memory. Again, we are objectifying our mind, helping it to achieve its mechanistic potential in a frantic attempt to avoid any deeper thought.


This stupid injunction to DO something without stopping to ruminate over what it is that we're actually doing is central to today's ideology - one of the main slogans of Blackberry's recent "Be Bold" ad campaign summed it up perfectly: "Don't just think, do".

Slavoj Zizek, gives an even better example: "When we are shown scenes of starving children in Africa,
with a call for us to do something to help them, the underlying ideological message is something like: "Don't think, don't politicize, forget about the true causes of their poverty, just act, contribute money, so that you will not have to think!”

Really thinking about how we are implicated in this poverty - how we are only affluent because they are poor (see the doco "Stealing Africa") - would be too difficult for us supposedly-compassionate ethically-acting liberals to fathom. It would shatter our self-identity. Not thinking about the causes of the poverty allows the system to continue to function undisturbed. We perform this "work of ignoring" in the service of capitalism.

It reminds me of something Adorno wrote - the exact quote evades me - along the lines of "it's impossible to act ethically in bad reality". We feel like we act ethically, but in order to do so we must ignore the bad reality. 

Running a lot, Luminosity and throwing money at charities are just three forms of this "work of ignoring", which is so central to obfuscating the contradictions of, and thereby upholding, capitalism today.