The Window Opens

“As Naomi Wolf points out, the goal of face masks is to handicap real life interactions by covering up empathic emotional expression in the physical dimension & to channel it through the digital version only, so that interactions are monetized online through data mining & ads.” Robin Monotti

“There can be no security for man on this earth, and the need for security, beyond a certain limit, is a dangerous illusion that distorts everything and makes minds dull, superficial, and stupidly satisfied.” – Simone Weil (1939)

“We’re both afraid to say we’re just too far away/ From being close together from the start/ We tried to talk it over but the words got in the way/ We’re lost inside this lonely game we play” “This Masquerade” George Benson

 

I went to an anti-lockdown protest and rally in my state last week. Although I’m sure the media will paint all of these as “right wing extremist” events, the reality is that the rally was far more diverse than the average masked-up neighborhood in the “woke” sections of my town. Latino, black, white, Asian, Indigenous. Many, many families with kids. People hugged, stood close together, talked, made contacts, kids played(!); and probably hundreds of cars honked in approval (car culture) as they drove past. Yes, there were provocateurs, but they couldn’t get any traction and left pretty fast. And this happened all over the world. See Tessa Lena and Alison McDowell for articles on the NYC rally in Union Square.

No one wore a mask. It is difficult to explain how this made me feel without turning maudlin on you—but there is something mysterious and necessary about face to face interaction. Something that is way more than the sum of its “parts”. Something that has to do with a door opening suddenly, when you thought you’d been locked into a room to die.

There’s an old fairy tale about a prince, so spoiled and conceited and nasty that his father, the king, despairs of him ever turning into a wise and just ruler. Leave aside for a minute the ruling class-monarchical tenor of the tale for a moment, and let it unfold. The king asks an old wise woman, a witch of course, for help. The woman says: “Give me your son for a month. During that month, do not look for him, do not ask for him. During that month you must act as if he is dead.” The king, desperate, agrees.

The old woman takes the boy—Prince Harweeda is his name—to a house in the forest. The house is large, sumptuous, richly furnished. The walls are covered with wide mirrors in golden frames—which the boy loves, because he’s in love with himself and his reflection. Windows alternate with the mirrors, but he hardly notices the windows, which look out onto the dark forest. The old woman tells him all his needs will be taken care of, and leaves him there.

And it is true. Every day, fresh, delicious food appears, wonderful clothing to try on in front of the mirrors, jewels to drape himself with, toys of all kinds. There is even a canary in a golden cage, who sings for him, morning and evening. The boy is so excited by all this new stuff that he doesn’t notice he can’t leave the house. He doesn’t even try to.

Every day the boy wakes up, eats a little but wastes most of the food, then spends his time preening before the mirrors. He doesn’t notice that the mirrors, each day, are a bit wider and the windows a bit narrower. He doesn’t notice that each day the light from the windows seems a little bit dimmer. He notices that he looks more handsome in the fading light., which pleases him.  As long as he can see himself, as long as delicious food appears every day, as long as wonderful clothing sewn with purple and gold thread shows up on his dresser every morning, the Prince is fine. Maybe a little bored. But every time he gets bored, there’s a new vest or jacket to try on, a new golden toy to beguile him–as if his every desire is known and taken care of, without the bother of asking.

This goes on for a day, a week, two, three. The light gets dimmer and dimmer. “This is the life!” the boy thinks, “free from my idiot father’s preoccupations, free from the idiot servants looking at me with their stupid reproachful eyes.” 

Free from bother, free from anything but his own reflection and his toys. And the beautiful house, which seems built purely to make him glad. Day after day. Dimmer and darker, but the boy doesn’t notice–except to note that the colors of each day’s new clothes seem less sumptuous, somehow. Grayer. It’s slightly frustrating, but quickly forgotten.

Then, one day, the boy wakes up and can’t see anything. He can’t see the mirrors, the food, the clothing. Nothing. It is completely dark in the house.

“Hey!” he calls out. “Get me some lights.” No one answers.

“Hey!” He gets out of bed and stumbles, falling to the floor. It is so dark he can’t even see the floor he’s on, or the walls that surround him. He crawls, feeling his way to the table where the food appears. His hand lands in a plate, but the food is too soft, as if rotten, and falls apart at his touch. “Hey!” he yells. “Get me some lights! And some food! You can’t expect me to eat this stuff!” No one answers.

The boy makes his way to the wall where the windows were, wondering why they don’t let in any light. But the wall feels smooth, as if it is nothing but mirror. He bangs on it, thinking if he breaks it, someone will have to come. But it doesn’t break. The boy yells again and bangs the mirrored wall, sure that someone will come. He’s so used to having all his needs met without having to ask, that he can only think of the horrific punishments he’s going to order his father to mete out to the idiots who neglected his breakfast and took away the lights.

No one comes. The boy bangs and screams. And he feels something new: fear. He screams louder, bangs until he’s exhausted. He starts to cry real tears, not tears of anger, but tears of fear and sadness. The fear turns to terror, desperation. He hits the wall and screams and cries until his voice fails, until he falls to the floor, unable to move.  He lies there for a very long time, shuddering. Alone.

Except, he’s not alone. After a long time, he hears a tiny sound. A very weak chirp.

The canary. He’s forgotten the canary! She must be hungry, trapped in the cage! The canary must be frightened and sad! The boy struggles to his feet. “Don’t worry,” he whispers. “just tell me where you are…”

It seems that something pierces the dark, just a little. There’s a little bit of gray light, or maybe he’s imagining it. He feels his way to where the cage was, and, yes, he can even see it. He can see the pale little bird, lying on the bottom of the cage. He opens the cage and takes her into his hand.

Holding the bird close to his heart, the boy gropes to the table where the food used to appear. He finds a pitcher and pours water into a saucer, gives it to the canary. The canary drinks, slowly. The boy finds some fruit, rotten, yes, but it’s what he has. He breaks off a piece for the canary. At first she doesn’t take it. “Please,” he whispers, “please eat.” Finally, she takes a bit. The boy begins to cry with happiness..

There’s more light. Or is he imagining it? He can see the canary take the piece of fruit, he can see her open her wings a little. he can even see the color of the fruit. He takes a bit himself. To his surprise, it tastes good—better than anything he’s ever had. He looks around. He can see the walls. The windows are narrow, but big enough for a canary. He doesn’t even notice the mirrors.

“You can go free, even if I can’t,” he tells the bird. “This is for strength.” He gives her more fruit and water. Then he carries her over to one of the windows. Is it wider than it was before, or is he imagining it? He can see the whole room now, new clothes laid out on his divan, dim sparkle in the light from the windows. But he’s not interested in the clothes. He carries the canary to the window. She’s stronger and stronger, hopping along his hand, up his arm. She begins to sing. The boy pauses, because he’s never heard such music. But that can’t be right, didn’t she used to sing before everything went dark? 

The boy struggles with the window latch, it seems rusted in places, as if it hasn’t been opened in generations. But it finally gives.

Trees, grass, sky, flowers, birds singing. Had they been here all along and he’d never seen them? Never noticed where he was? He wipes his eyes again—why cry over all this beauty? Beauty that has nothing to do with fine clothes and dishes and golden furniture?

“Go,” he says to the canary. “Go find someone to sing to, someone who won’t put you in a cage.” The little bird hops down his arm, pauses on the windowsill, then flies; disappears into green and gold and blue. The boy begins to sob. Crying, he falls to his knees. “She’s free!” he cries. “She’s happy!”

And at that moment, the windows and door fly open, light floods the room. The boy can see that it’s nothing but a poor peasant’s cabin: rough walls, dirt floor, a humble cot with straw mattress. Who cares, it is beautiful. The canary is free. The forest is wondrous, full of the hum of insects, the calls of bird and beast, the secret humor of trees and plants.

For me, that’s where the tale should end.

But of course there’s the obligatory happy ever after. The old woman comes and tells the king to go and find the boy–that he’s now a good, compassionate, person. The king is overjoyed, brings Prince Harweeda back to the castle, Harweeda eventually turns into a just and bountiful ruler, remembering always the first moments when he cared for someone other than himself. And so on and so forth.

But the real point, the real opening, is the prince’s first feeling of compassion for the bird. And the second is that he lets the bird go free, even when he doesn’t think he’ll ever go free.

That’s how it felt to me to see people going without masks, gathering peacefully and without fear, after a year of brutal psy-ops and shaming and fear mongering. Like a window opened in a dark stuffy room. After a year in which the poor and working class have grown poorer, have suffered disproportionately, and the rich have gotten richer—Walmart, Amazon, Target, Facebook, etc. A year in which the oligarchs and the compliant media have intensified the divisive rhetoric, dividing us into two camps: the Zoomers (upper-middle class mostly) who buy into the need to keep masked up and locked down and looking into their Zoom mirrors in the name of “protecting” people, (thus enabling the oligarchs to destroy small businesses and put more and more people at risk of the dire consequences, health very much included, of poverty); and the poor and working class stuck in their cages, or thrust into the streets, starving to death.

Poverty kills. Poverty and its effects kill more people each year than any particular illness, and certainly more than Covid-19, which has a survival rate of 99.8% in most people. Poverty also replicates itself, so that, in the capitalist USA especially, once you fall into it, it is very very hard, almost impossible, for you, your children, or their children to escape it. Lockdowns kill. Even the WHO and the UN have recognized that the lockdowns in the name of “stopping the spread” are unprecedented and unwarranted, and do more harm than good. The numbers show they don’t work—places, like Florida, Sweden and Nicaragua, who didn’t really lock down, have the same covid case numbers, or LESS, than places with heavy lockdowns. But the media tells us—don’t look at that, because even looking at those numbers means you are a heartless deplorable. No, if you are “responsible” you must keep staring at the screen mirror and don’t question it. Stay on zoom, while the canaries starve. At least they’re “safe” from covid while they starve to death. And of course, wear a mask, and, more importantly, shame others into wearing one—especially children.

That way you can’t see their desperation.

And you can’t see your own indifference to any suffering that is not media sanctioned, not fed to you via a screen.

And you can’t see the coming darkness.

“Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. . . what grows lives and is alive only through the feeling of its contact with other mysterious worlds. If that feeling grows weak in you, the heavenly growth will die away in you. Then you will be indifferent to life and even grow to hate it. That’s what I think.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, “Conversations and Exhortations of Father Zossima”.

The Spoiled Spectacular

“You run one time, you got yourself a set of chains. You run twice you got yourself two sets. You ain’t gonna need no third set, ’cause you gonna get your mind right.” Captain, Cool Hand Luke

“The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” – GK Chesterton

“According to a new report by Oxfam . . the wealth of the world’s billionaires increased by $3.9tn (trillion) between 18 March and 31 December 2020. . . . In September 2020, Jeff Bezos could have paid all 876,000 Amazon employees a $105,000 bonus and still be as wealthy as he was before COVID.” Colin Todhunter, “Viral Inequality and the Farmers’ Struggle in India

I once worked in a no-kill animal shelter in a rapidly gentrifying area of Brooklyn. The shelter was in the back office of a warehouse, dating from the industrial past of the neighborhood. Because a wildlife rehabber ran the shelter, we took in feral and wild animals as well as strays, exotic pets like pythons, rats rescued from labs, chickens from live-slaughter shops, and all manner of birds, who, once they could fly, were released into the “bird room” to socialize before being let out into Brooklyn (pigeons, crows, doves) or taken to a sanctuary (swans, ducks, chickens). One day when I was working alone in the shelter, a man came to deliver supplies. He was Guatemalteco, I think, spoke very little English. I speak Spanish (not well) so we talked for a while about the animals, I asked him the word for snake, which I’d forgotten, and I told him we had all kinds of animals, even snakes and tarantulas. Usually I could get a rise out of people when I said snakes or spiders. (I’m not sure why I wanted such a reaction, some kind of habitual schtick). But he waved his hand in a circle, encompassing every corner and every cage, and said. “Hermosos, todos” (They’re all beautiful). And he repeated it. “Todos hermosos. Todos.”

A Covid-related aside about that shelter. One of my tasks was to clean the bird room. Now, birds crap everywhere, so by the time I got in there to clean, the floor was generally covered with fresh and dried birdshit. I’d sweep up the dry with a broom, then mop the floor. Every time I cleaned, I inhaled dried, powdered birdshit. I also received my share of bites and scratches, by, among other beings, mice, squirrels, cats, and a crippled possum I used to carry around in the front pocket of my hoodie to comfort her. I never got sick from any of it. Never thought about it back then, but today it’d be a zoonotic neurotic’s nightmare. Animals! Germs! GAAAAA!

“They want us in a constant state of fear – fear of our bodies, fear of other people, fear of nature. Contained in virtual realms people are easier to manage.” Alison McDowell, Wrench in the Gears

I wanted to write about the cultural shift that’s taking place under the aegis of Covid lockdowns as it relates to online performance, especially dance. MD Petrucelli wrote a great article about the pernicious effects of online education and lack of access to culture on the working class—exacerbated through the lockdown.

“Perhaps it has come time, some months later, to discuss the cost of the COVID operations for the working class and culture. . . . The pedagogical losses for the working class have yet to be tallied, but I will certainly do my best to account for at least two of them. One, the loss of the education systems guaranteed, with all of their previous faults, for the youth of the working class. The second, the loss of cultural artifacts that should be used to serve the education of adults. The driving force behind both of these is the same, that the ever infantilized working class must be protected from all potential dangers; especially itself.” MD Petrucelli, “The Destruction of Working-Class Pedagogy.

(as an aside to this, one out of three museums will not reopen after Covid. That represents an alarming loss of, at least theoretically accessible culture.)

Why does this matter?

“One of the most important aspects of aesthetics, of the study of art at all, is that it teaches the viewer or reader how to see and experience more deeply, with more sensitivity, and this in turn (among other things) leads to the ability to recognize the fraudulent. In other words you come to recognize propaganda. It is almost the cultivating of a sub-clinical intuitive skill, a sense when a narrative or an image seem counterfeit.” John Steppling, “Anteroom of Our Own Extinction.”

Brooklyn Ice House Painting by George Ault

George Ault

Many of the performing artists I know have embraced online performance. Most out of necessity, which is itself coerced. There is a very real possibility of authoritarian governmental crackdowns on people who don’t comply with lockdown rules. That is understood, and has its own chilling effect, which I would not want to minimize. What’s troubling is not so much the act of zooming a performance or two. It’s more that there seems to be this blindness about the pernicious effects of this push to put all of cultural life, (as well as most other aspects of life, see here, here, here) online. It’s one thing to go along because you have to, and to understand that your compliance is coerced. But it’s quite another to convince yourself that the “new normal” is better than the old. I’m reacting now to a message I keep seeing from performing artists that goes something like this: “We were so spoiled before! We need to change ourselves! We were so selfish before to think we could perform live!”

No, no, no, and no. First, performing live, gathering to watch live performances, or to celebrate, or to mingle to look at or make art, or to make or listen to music, is not being spoiled. It is a birthright of being human; something we’ve done for millennia, something the cave painters likely did. Something we’ve done throughout plagues far far far more lethal than this oversold one. It is part of being human. If you think you’re spoiled because you want to exist as a creative, loving, hurting, striving, wondering, fearing, angry, beautiful human being in physical relation with other beings and the world, then you really are brainwashed.

Second, the idea that we, as artists in the hypercapitalistic U.S., have been spoiled is, quite frankly astonishing. We’ve been continually forced to justify our own existence. We work shit jobs, we are the gig economy’s favorite victims. For almost nothing, we create art, pour our hearts into it, and bless people for deigning to come see it.

(Part of this, too, I think, is the idea that tech is somehow neutral, or always good. Many have talked about this, including Lewis Mumford (see Technics and Civilization). If you want to take a good look at the militaristic and surveillance oriented origins of the internet, see Sasha Levine’s Surveillance Valley. If you need to be convinced further to take a hard look at online “solutions” as they relate to education, see Petrucelli and Alison McDowell, and Alan Gutenberg, and Shawgi Tell, on just how destructive online education has been for poor kids “[H]ow will more screen time and isolation reduce alienation and health problems and give rise to deep, healthy, authentic connections between humans? Will doing everything remotely and through apps empower people and open the path of progress to society? How will uberizing everything increase prosperity for all?” Shawgi Tell. The wide-scale acceptance of tech, in a way, has made the wide-scale acceptance of authoritarian measures much easier.)

I think there’s something, too, of the “can do” attitude we pride ourselves on. But that attitude has been, and can be, used against us. The lockdown measures are neoliberalism on steroids. One of the things neoliberal capitalism is really good at is propaganda—the spectacle. One of the messages that’s been drilled into us at least since the Reagan/Thatcher years is this idea that, as Thatcher said, “There is no alternative” to neoliberal austerity and the fracturing of society. Online culture fits right into that–it furthers our isolation, or atomization, our inability to organize to pursue changes. If we in the performing arts (myself very much included) are “guilty” of anything, it is that we’ve become socially amnesiac, we’ve accepted this fracturing, the austerity, the disregard in which culture is held, the gig economy we’re forced into–we’ve accepted the idea that “there is no alternative.” The notion that live performance is a “spoiled” or somehow elitist activity is more of the same. It does not challenge the status quo. It does not “democratize access.” At the very least we need to understand that. Our reaction to very real pressures may mean that we have to go online. But let’s be very clear about why. It has nothing to do with what we did, or didn’t do before. It is being imposed on us, and not for our own good.

“When one thinks over the real purposes of our art, a player who truly can bring happiness to his audiences is one who can without censure bring his art to all, from the nobility to audiences in mountain temples, the countryside, the far-off provinces, and the various shrine festivals.” – Seami, On the Art of the Nō Drama.

Aside from Covid and Zoom, there’s another thing I wanted to touch on, relating to dance, modern, western concert dance specifically–relating to form and audience.

As to form: Concert dance first had to distinguish itself from ballet and show dance–its parents. So people developed new physical vocabularies (which somehow keep rolling right back into ballet). That wasn’t enough, so they got rid of narrative, then the dependence on music. I’m vastly oversimplifying of course. And none of these things are bad. People were trying to invent something new. In a way this reminds me of Christianity—and how protestantism split off from Catholicism, first over certain rules, then later different protestant sects rejected different aspects of Catholicism—ritual, ceremony, saints, etc. Now there are so many protestant sects you can’t count them. Just like there are so many modern dance techniques and companies you can’t count them. At some point the contradictions take over and there’s almost no more to be done in concert dance (or in Christianity!) That’s a little bit tongue in cheek, but you get the idea. If you’ve worked hard to free yourself from history, but you develop amnesia about that history, then at some point you don’t have freedom at all, or history. Then people start adding things back—ballet moves, music, story, text, etc. That’s a dialectic—thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Sort of. Dialectics, and I’m no expert on this, requires that we examine the inherent contradictions in something, and how those contradictions change the original thing, sometimes into its opposite.

The larger point here though is audience. Who comes to see concert dance? It seems to be overwhelmingly upper-middle class people. We can make weak gestures of inclusion, but this is something that might be built-in (again, see Petrucelli). Maybe this is why dancers are finding it so easy to Zoom–the upper middle class seems to be the people most likely to embrace the lockdown, and the online life. That’s what I’m seeing anyway.

As to the Seami quote, I don’t think he was talking about the American version of smiley-faced happiness. Nō theater can be quite dark—ghosts and demons are common characters. The last theater piece I saw (pre Covid) that made me “happy” in the way I think Seami is talking about was a play, a tragedy, done mostly in the dark, about trapped miners. Happy in that case meant it affected me deeply, took me out of my everyday world and put me into dreamtime, while at the same time maybe showing me my everyday world. That’s hard to explain, so I won’t, at the risk of throwing out glib platitudes. I do know one thing: that play would NOT have worked online.

Back to concert dance. Modern, western, concert dance has no working class audience. I welcome disagreement to this, but hear me out. That’s not just a function of marketing or access, nor is it a fault of the increasingly marginalized working class. If we look at other forms—Flamenco, Folk, Ethnic forms, Show dance, even Ballet, even if they appear in a concert context, they all have/had wide audiences. And the audiences are often working class ones, especially in the case of Flamenco (less so for ballet, which remains, in the west, somewhat aristocratic. Not elitist. Aristocratic. There is a difference). History and tradition play a part in this, of course, as well as narrative. For example, in Italy, opera had (and has, I guess) a passionate working class following. Why? We should ask that question, and (talking to myself now) not think we know the answer.

Vaslav Njinsky

The lockdowns have thrown everyone into reaction mode, so it’s natural, this desire to somehow “reinvent”. But the opposite of examining our art dialectically is to consider ourselves “spoiled” (how crazy that strikes me!) for having had the opportunity to perform for the few people who came to see us, and then force ourselves online. In Cool Hand Luke, “getting your mind right” meant not causing the bosses (prison guards, warden, whatever) any trouble. It meant accepting arbitrary punishment, perpetuating the prison, perpetuating the idea that you’re nothing, non-essential, wrong, bad, a beggar at best, so whatever the authorities throw at you is fine, they’re always right. Mea culpa. That’s the mindset we do not need.

So maybe the “change” that could happen in concert dance is something completely different than going on zoom, or changing who you hire, or hiring more techies or getting a bigger online platform. Maybe it’s looking back instead of forward, not to go back, which is impossible. But to know where you stand, where the path started, where it went. And above all, what kind of a society bred you and the art you grew up seeing—a capitalist, neoliberal, militaristic one that has been completely normalized? What is an oppositional stance, an oppositional form, to this normalization? What makes the audience so uniform, the reactions so expected? What does someone like Brecht have to tell us? Or Beckett? Pinter? Or my favorites Nijinsky and Fosse? To me, all these artists were aware of where they were, and what the manufactured reality was. They created art that confronted that manufactured reality. In form, not in any kind of “messagey” or utilitarian way. They worked with ambiguities. They were, all of them, serious, in a way we’ve kind of forgotten about.

I have no answers.

Paul Nadasdy talks about a Klamath trapper in the Yukon who, over and over again, had his traps robbed of rabbits by the same wolverine. The trapper tried everything—moving the traps, changing the traps, staying up all night with his gun and his dog to watch the traps and try to catch the wolverine—this same wolverine who’d been robbing traps in the area for years. But no go. In the morning, the traps would be carefully sprung, the rabbits gone, a little bit of blood and fur left to show they’d been there. The Klamath trapper never caught the wolverine. He finally stopped setting traps, knowing the weasel would spring them and take whoever had been caught. A white rancher would likely have hunted down the wolverine in a helicopter, or poisoned all wolverines in the area, the way they do with wolves. (that Big-Ag policy of eradication is actually destroying the planet).

But to the Klamath trapper, the wolverine wasn’t a pest, or a germ-filled, potential disease vector, to put it in more current terms. Rather he was someone with whom the hunter had a relation. A long-term relation, problematic to be sure, even deadly, but still a relation. A relation that turned into a story he told, again and again. And sure, he’d have killed the wolverine if he’d caught him, that particular wolverine, as a matter of survival. The wolverine knew that, and acted accordingly. It’s a very different stance than that of “eradicating pests.” All the contradictions and dangers and ambiguities of relationship are there, pulsing back and forth. The Klamath’s world is the world screen time destroys, by, among other things, flattening all ambiguity. We can’t live in the Klamath world, unless we were raised there. But we can resist the flattened, online world the ruling class is offering us.

First, we have to see it.

So the first thing to do, the main role of art . . . is to reclaim a radical vision, an oppositional stance, and not in message, but in form. And that can only come out of radical politics.” J. Steppling.

Todos hermosos, todos.

Carl Ray

Managing Mystery

Lions of Chauvet Cave

“Over the millenia the living memory of prehistory, of its nomadic period and even more of the truly prepartriarchal stages, has been expunged from human consciousness with the most terrible punishments. The enlightened spirit replaced fire and the wheel by the stigma it attached to all irrationality, which led to perdition.” Teodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment

“the control of internal and external nature has been made the absolute purpose of life.” Ibid.

“. . educated and left-leaning people’s enthusiastic embrace of authoritarianism during the Corona pandemic bizarrely reveals their deep agreement with the world as it is. The left’s newly discovered love for state authority and organs enforcing these measures, a love in the name of the ‘vulnerable’, precisely reflects a radical indifference towards the precariat and ‘underclass.’” See, crisiscritique

“Long as you keep ’em way off balance, How can they spot you’ve got no talents? Razzle dazzle ’em, and they’ll make you a star!” “Razzle-Dazzle ‘Em” from Chicago, Kander & Ebb.

Near where my family lived in South Texas, was a Curandera’s house–small, of pale green adobe, with a painted sign in front. Lush plants surrounded the house: red and pink flowers with dark green leaves, and beyond that, scrub and cactus and sand, and the highway. It was beautiful, sure, but it also gave you a pleasure to look at that had nothing to do with beauty. Every time we went past, my mother said something like, “wonder how she’s doing?” We never went to doctors, but we also never went to the Curandera. For one thing, we weren’t Mexican, and were therefore shy of the Curandera. For another, my mother had her own way—prayer—of dealing with any infirmity. She was pretty convinced that her way was the only way. But she was attracted to the Curandera’s house. It gave off a sense of timelessness, and maybe goodness, that contrasted with our own chaotic home. There was a pull towards it every time we went past—as if the Curandera, or her house, were calling us. Maybe we needed healing.

“La Curandera” Neda Contreras

The Curandera’s knowledge and my mother’s idea of prayer as healer are both, generally, vilified in Western, Anglo capitalist culture as “unscientific.” In Dialectic of Entlightenment, Adorno & Horkheimer write about how the enlightenment ideal that tries to replace superstition with science, myth with reason, irrationality with rationality, itself becomes a myth, no less demanding of obedience than any ancient taboo. The more you suppress a myth, the more you create another that’s every bit as irrational (and compulsory). Adorno and Horkheimer were writing just after World War II, when “the transition to the administered world” was compete, and Nazism, as the most horrific aspect of that “administered world,” was fresh in mind.

Silvia Federici writes in Caliban and the Witch about how primitive accumulation—the prerequisite and precursor to capitalism—required that the power of peasant women be destroyed. In the feudal era, female serfs were “less dependent on their male kin, less differentiated from them physically, socially, and psychologically, and were less subservient to men’s needs than ‘free’ women were to be later in capitalist society.” Federici, Caliban. According to Federici, the three centuries long shift from feudalism to capitalism required the horrific violence of the witch-hunts, because, for one thing, women took a large role in, and in fact often drove, the peasant rebellions. Among the women most vulnerable to state violence were the healers—midwives, women who used traditional medicines, etc, They were replaced during this time by male doctors, a change forced by the state. “Both in France and in England, starting from the end of the 16th century, few women were allowed to practice obstetrics, an activity that, until that time, had been their inviolable mystery.” Federici, Ibid.

During this time “witches” (usually poor women) were demonized as cannibals, sexual predators, libertines or heretics. They were tortured and burned by the thousands. After that intense persecution, when the serfs had become wage workers and capitalism was firmly in place, the writing and “science” around women changed. No longer demons, they became passive, childlike, aesexual beings whose place was in the home, raising future factory workers. An early form of propaganda, in service of capital.

Now, here we are in the “techno-enlightenment”– what Hiroyuki Hamada calls the “cage” of late-stage capitalism. His idea is that capitalism gives you just enough room so you don’t revolt. We rarely see the ways we’re coerced, because with the enlightenment, coercion became “management.” The internet provides a curtain that obscures it. Cell phones enable us to take our cages with us. The cage is called “freedom” or “necessity.” If I had a dime for every time I heard someone say, “I hate cellphones but we can’t live without them…” Why not?  We did for 100,000 years. But no. We are thoroughly administered. We are managed.

“His vision, from the constantly passing bars,/ has grown so weary that it cannot hold/ anything else. It seems to him there are/ a thousand bars, and behind the bars, no world.” Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Panther.”

The coronavirus measures have made the cage smaller, even for those who believe they are necessary. They have traumatized the population economically, of course, but also in ways we haven’t even begun to see. Whatever relief we used to have from this perpetually administered life–visiting friends or family, going to sports or theater or dance or movies, going to the gym or dance class, travel, even browsing bookstores or sitting in coffee shops—has disappeared. We are left with our screens, and the distorted reality they present. We are fed fear porn 24/7 and told to stay at home, while the war in Afghanistan and the Patriot Act enter their 20th year, military spending in the US steadily increases, Bill Gates quietly funds geoengineering projects designed to blot out the sun (what could possibly go wrong?), Jeff Bezos quietly gets ready to send 500 satellites into orbit to facilitate the transition to 5G and monitor every inch of the planet, while distorting the night sky with likely devastating effects on migratory animals (And who knows? Plants also may need to sense the stars), 64% of small businesses close, never to re-open, and millions of people get thrown into poverty. We don’t get any say in any of this.

I used to know a guy who liked to say, “If it ain’t about money, it ain’t about nothing.” He was a small-time hood of sorts. Since I had a crush on him, it depressed me to hear him go on about money. Well what about LOVE? I never asked of course. One doesn’t when one is young and has a crush. But listen. Maybe he’s right. The rich are getting richer–the pandemic lockdowns have enabled one of the biggest wealth transfers in history. The rest of us are managed and manipulated and kept completely off balance with a “health crisis” whose parameters keep changing. It’s no wonder the WHO hired Hill & Knowlton, the PR firm behind the completely false “babies thrown out of incubators” propaganda leading up to the first Iraq war (See, here) in order to “combat misinformation” about the virus. A PR firm known for huge lies that cost thousand of lives hired to market a virus. One that, even according to the CDC, most people have a 99.8% chance of surviving. A misinformation firm par excellence hired to “combat misinformation.” But pay no attention to that PR firm behind the curtain–stay home, live on Zoom or Facebook and shop at Amazon. Or starve.

“for the liberal, and sometimes the radical left, the lockdown became the site of struggle of a science-guided paternal state against ‘selfish people’ enjoying themselves in outside spaces like parks and beaches. In the name of the ‘vulnerable’, it absorbed an authoritarian Kulturkampf on its own terms, that at best disregarded the ramification of total economic shutdown for the poorest, and at worst whipped up a classist resentment against ordinary, often working, individuals to whom the often-used label ‘vulnerable’ mysteriously never applies.” (crisiscritique)

This article was supposed to be about the push–through the covid fear–to put all performances online, but I got off track, surprise, surprise. The truth is, I’m lockdown exhausted, like everyone else. I’ll say it again, we don’t have any idea of the kind of psychological/physical toll these measures will ultimately have on us. It’s completely unknown territory. But at the risk of getting off track again, I’ll muster some mojo and say this:

About 30,000 years ago, humans painted in the caves in Chauvet, France. “Most of the animals depicted in Chauvet were in life ferocious, yet nowhere is there a trace of fear. Respect, yes, a fraternal respect. And this is why in every animal image there is a human presence. A presence revealed by pleasure. Each creature here is at home in man – a strange formulation, yet incontestable. . . . The Cro-Magnons lived with fear and amazement in a culture of Arrival, facing many mysteries. Their culture lasted for some 20,000 years. We live in a dominant culture of ceaseless Departure and Progress that has so far lasted two or three centuries. Today’s culture, instead of facing mysteries, persistently tries to outflank them.” (emphasis added) John Berger, “Past Present.”

The cave painters painted animals with an exactitude, grace and intimacy that has never been replicated. Their lives were shorter than ours, but not as short as apologists for industrial civilization would have you believe. They had to survive, sure, yet they apparently spent a good deal of their time–maybe most of it–on art, on imagination. They were not managed. Not by kings, overlords, masters, bosses, money, nor “society.”

John Steppling talked recently about a connection from the cave painters to us, passed on by art–a living connection of imagination. But the trend, forced by the corona measures, towards online performance, online life in fact, severs that connection completely. That’s tremendously sad.

Online, everything you do is, ipso facto, “managed.” Even if you don’t think about it, on some visceral level you know it, and act accordingly. As performers, we feed our vision and our desire to communicate into a camera, manned, probably, by a masked individual, instead of an audience with whom we hope to create, hell, we do create, even if they don’t like us—a relationship. The audience members become pure consumers, passive ones. This is key, I think, to what bothers me. A live audience is an active part of any performance. Even if they hate the performance, even if they fall asleep. (I’ve heard it said that it’s not an insult to fall asleep while watching a Noh performance—the performance itself is dreamlike.) But, here’s the thing: in order to enter into that dreamspace. the audience must leave the comfort of their known world. They must assemble in a different place, with people they don’t know, and enter a different time-frame. Not one proponent of online theater I’ve listened to talks about this aspect of online performance. But to me it’s obvious. That loss makes the whole thing bland, bloodless, trivial. The passive audience becomes a receptacle for some almost necessarily self-referential (because no one else is there) “art.”

Sure it’s not news. Over the past 20 years, or maybe 50, people have gotten used to passively absorbing entertainment that’s mostly curated and managed by faceless committees and focus groups. A process that started with TV, grew exponentially with the streaming on the internet, ditto cell phones. Online theater and dance—pushed on us by the lockdown measures—is the culmination of that trend, being heralded as necessary (yes, I understand the argument, and I don’t agree with it) or, more mystifyingly, as progress. 

If there’s no live performance, there’s no possibility of refusing that trend. Art becomes an online transaction, like shopping. Or banking.

I re-read this and realized that I’m talking from the POV of a performer. But I don’t like watching online theater either, and less so dance, online, for the same reasons–no connection, no heat. There is, though, an exception to this, and that is radio plays. There is something mysterious about disembodied voices, and sound, that even translates across the flattening field of the internet. I don’t know why that is, maybe it’s the subject of a future post. Maybe because it leaves a lot to your imagination–so you’re not passive. So that’s the exception . . .

John Steppling again, talking about a job he had once as a dog trainer: “Chows didn’t really need to be trained. They didn’t run into traffic, didn’t jump up on guests, or chew up your new couch. They were mostly indifferent to anyone but their owner. And that was that. I bring this up because, as I say, Chows were regarded as very smart. One might ask how that was determined. The answer is both subtle and complex at once.

They gave off an aura of intelligence. They also didn’t do dumb shit. It was clear they understood commands, but also clear they were not going to follow those commands. Was that smart of them? . . .  It is often stated that adaptation is a sign of intelligence. I don’t quite buy that, though it *is* in certain situation. But refusal to go along is a sign of intelligence too.” John Steppling, “Game (Theory) of Life.”

Refusal to go along is a sign of intelligence too. Even small refusals, like the refusal to embrace online performance. Or the refusal to live in fear, or to live in manipulated and moralistic outrage at anyone who disagrees with you, or to see things in terms of them versus us. That’s what the ruling class wants. Forgive me if I don’t indulge.

The year of living “safely”

Henri Rousseau, “Dreams”

“Obedience (to external authority) is built into us so deep that we have to do a lot of work to even find who we are, and only then can we know what to do.” Varun Mather (paraphrased) “Sacred/Profane: Great Reset – India.” with Deepti Datt, Varun Mather, Cory Morningstar, Alison McDowell, interviewed by Jason Bosch.

* * *

When I was in my late teens, I was a club kid. I had moved out of my parents’ house, and lived, mostly by myself, in various apartments in Chicago. I worked in restaurants and hotels, and, least remuneratively, in clothing stores. I went, with my fake ID, to dance clubs—then called discos—almost every night. When I wasn’t working or dancing, I walked around the city, and read. I went for days without sleep, then I’d crash and sleep through the two alarm clocks I’d set, arrive late to work, and get fired, again.

For about two or three years I lived this sort of aimless life. I got mugged, beaten up, assaulted,  had knives pulled on me, was stalked. The latter by the super in one of the buildings I lived, who shoved disturbing little notes under my door when I was there, and, I’m quite sure, came into the room when I wasn’t, leaving things very slightly rearranged, and with a smell of, what? Boiler room? Work clothes? About half of my male friends had done time in jail. Those friends who lived relatively well had union jobs. This was just before Reagan.

I don’t remember anyone trusting the government, state, local or federal, to do anything remotely benevolent. I don’t remember anyone trusting laws or mandates or whatever, to be applied fairly. I don’t remember anyone saying, “Stay safe.” Maybe, “keep out of trouble.” We weren’t safe, no one was, and we knew it.

“Not in any beyond, but here on earth, most men live in a hell, Schopenhauer saw that very well. My knowledge, my theories and my methods have the goal of making men conscious of this hell so that they can free themselves from it.” Sigmund Freud.

There’s a hypnotic, mystifying effect of words or phrases that get repeated over and over—propaganda-ists have known this for years. “Stay safe” is one of them, “reset” and “new normal” are others that have been repeated ad nauseum this year. 

(As an aside, I read recently a poem by Federico García Lorca called “Grito hacia Roma.” Around the same time I remembered this excellent article by Franco Moretti and Dominique Pestre called “Bankspeak“, about how the language used in World Bank Reports has changed since the 1950s, to become more and more vague, more and more filled with corporate buzzwords like “dialogue,” “challenge”, “implement” and “sustainable” instead of words like “roads,” “rivers”, “traffic,” “railroads.” I was struck by the contrast between Lorca—who, as a poet, used the language of images in surprising, non-literal ways, in order to actually clarify something that couldn’t otherwise be said, and the bankspeak, which uses language to obscure; to say, in effect, absolutely nothing. Kind of like MFA-speak about art.)

But back to propaganda. A few years ago I did some research into the unions in Butte, Montana in the late 19th, early 20th century. Butte was called the “Gibraltar of Labor” for the strength of its unions. I have some doubts about how strong the unions actually were, or how radical, but certainly they helped a lot of families live well. But from about 1917-20 the unions were weakened and the strength of labor decimated by concerted attacks by capital—copper mine owners—and government. The FBI infiltrated the unions, provoking conflicts between various ethnic groups, killed radical labor organizers (with the murders usually blamed on private individuals), the Montana governor called in the National Guard to put down protests. Although there wasn’t wholesale massacre like there was of the coal miners in Ludlow, Colorado, there was bloodshed and suppression. I’m simplifying a complicated history which is worth looking into.

One episode of that history had to do with World War I. In Butte, as in many places, no one wanted the war. I should say the working class didn’t want it—the copper mine owners were fully on board, surprise, surprise. In Butte, the Irish didn’t want to fight alongside the British, the Germans had started to feel the brunt of the propaganda campaign to demonize them, no one saw the need to go to war for what was perceived (rightly) as some quarrel between elites. The war was intensely unpopular. So consent had to be coerced. (I didn’t say manufactured. It was coerced.) It was coerced with violence and with propaganda. I’m no historian, but I remember reading somewhere that Wilson’s push to get the U.S. into that war spawned the U.S. propaganda machine. Demonization of Germans was one aspect of that propaganda. That kind of hate and fear mongering has of course, been used against Japanese, Russians, Muslims. Now, social media is much more efficient at propaganda than anything Wilson or Edward Bernays could have imagined. 

“Something in cyber culture (more acute due to the lockdowns) encourages simplistic narratives of good and evil. And in times of acute precarity there seems a default setting of ‘trust’ regarding state institutions. This also all falls under infantilism.” John Steppling, “Fascist Kabuki.”

“Stay safe” has a manufactured feel to it. I remember when people started saying “take care,” almost exclusively, instead of interspersed with other farewells like “later” or “see ya.” Maybe it was in the 90s, another era of intense job loss and working class immiseration, as well as propaganda demonizing young black men in cities as “super-predators”—a propaganda push in which, Joe Biden, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton all played active roles—forgotten now, mostly, except for Trump’s.

“Stay safe” is more passive than “take care.” It’s perfect for justifying house arrest. It’s magical—like an incantation. Alliterative. Although it only makes sense if you live a relatively comfortable life, it is used across the board, like a spell. No, it didn’t start with Covid. But it has become endemic this year (to use another overworked WHO word, although not as overworked as the poor, “pandemic” a word that must be exhausted by now).

There’s also an inherent notion of temporality. Like once the boogie-man/wicked witch is gone, come out come out where ever you are! Once there’s a vaccine, once the good man (who beat the bad man) locks everyone down for a mere xxxxx time, we can all go back to living! “Stay safe until then!” It being December, I’ve seen a lot of articles and even advertisements that begin with something like: “It’s been a rough year for everyone. Time to . . . etc.” I’m all for optimism; I don’t happen to be capable of it where billionaires or governments run by and for billionaires are concerned. But “stay safe” is particularly blind. In the U.S. alone, 8 million people have “slipped into poverty.” Worldwide, “the number of people facing acute food insecurity will nearly double to 265 million by the end of 2020″. See, here. Among other evil effects of the lockdown measures. Those effects don’t go away by magic. They will take years to cure. If they ever get cured, which doesn’t seem to be the plan. And no, the virus doesn’t cause world hunger. That’s another language mystification–“food insecurity caused by the pandemic,” should read: “caused by the measures put in place globally to contain a virus.” 

Yes, there’s a virus. No its severity did not warrant the measures that have destroyed the lives of millions, especially in the global south. Anyone who thinks the lockdown measures “put health over the economy” (another hypnotic, overused phrase) is not seeing these measures from a class perspective. Is not seeing them for what they are—a massive redistribution of wealth UPWARD.

“. . . remember, lockdowns just have one consequence that you must never, ever belittle, and that is making poor people an awful lot poorer.” David Nabarro, quoted by James Corbett

“Between March and October, 2020, during the said pandemic, US billionaires saw their “net worth” rise by almost $1 trillion with Bezos on top with a net worth of approx. 200 billion USD. Here we can infer, that the person whose corporation now leads in mass global land degradation, resource use, energy consumption and subsequent greenhouse gas emissions, is also the wealthiest. All while Amazon continues to exploit its workers. All while those in the Global South face literal starvation. This is your new “stakeholder capitalism” as touted by World Economic Forum et al. . . While “corona” serves to distract a global populace, a virus Klaus Schwab describes as “mild” in his book COVID-19 The Great Reset, one thing is clear – billionaires are the most dangerous virus of all.”” Cory Morningstar, “The great reset: the final assault on the living planet, part III.

And we are told we must lose our “non-essential” jobs and stay home, if we have one, and, if we can, do everything online, because that’s “safer.” From a working or even middle class perspective, that’s bullshit. An “essential” job is one that pays the rent or the mortgage. From an environmental perspective, it’s insane. “The more that states, industries, institutions, platforms and devices rely on data and internet interconnectivity to function, the more our global energy consumption will soar.” Id. Cory Morningstar has written extensively about this. You can (and should) read her work here, and here. Also that of Alison Hawver McDowell.

We are told are to “trust the science” and “do as we’re told.” (Fauci). First, there is no monolithic, consensus, undebatable “science,” ever. Scientific research is always falsifiable, and science concerning the virus is no exception, see, here. So, “trust the science” means, essentially, trust the authorities, trust those in power. Do not question. But, as an artist, my job is to question. see, John Steppling and Hiroyuki Hamada, and here, and Deepti Datt, and Tessa Lena (“let’s not forget my brethren, the artists, who, out of starvation and indignity, will then create beautiful, artful, moving ads for anything that pays”). To be blunt, this is not, and never was about the virus. 

This is long and rambling so, if you’re still with me, thank you for letting me rant. I’ll leave off with another vignette, far less ranty. I lived, for a short time, in a small house in upstate New York, where I could walk either two miles to the Continental Trailways station to catch a bus to NYC and my job, or I could walk five miles to a shuttle which took me to the train to NYC. The five mile walk took me well over an hour, so I had to get up early to do it, and, since this was the winter, walk most of the way in the dark. It was cold, and sometimes there was snow, or rain. But what a walk! I wound through twisted little streets, into and out of forest, past small, old, dark houses, past graveyards overgrown with rustling weeds, past fields where, in the corner of my eye, something would move—deer, coyote, cat, owl, man, I never knew. Anyone who walks in the dark knows that slowly, your eyes get so accustomed that you see as clear as in the daytime, but without the color. And that, in the quiet, your ears, the skin on your face (the only thing exposed in the winter), your nose—all your senses sharpen. When I walked past houses I wondered if the people inside could hear me, because it seemed I could hear them, or maybe feel them: breathing, yawning, sleeping, dreaming, pulling up the covers for one last snooze before the alarm. In those moments, I loved them, those families. Huddled in their little rooms, thinking about their children, or jobs or school, or the morning rush, or worrying, or just dreaming (just!). The contrast was delicious—their warm huddle, like bears in hibernation, and my cold walk, out there with the stars and the wind and the rest of the nocturnal and crepuscular beings.

But the shuttle stop lay across a highway from the dark tangled streets. So, at the end of the walk, I’d start to hear the highway, then I’d turn a corner and boom—there it was. And morning rush hour. Cars, lights, noise, bleary eyes, coffee balanced in gloved hands. All, like me, headed for jobs they probably hated. After so long in the dark and quiet, the highway stunned me like it must stun animals—my senses so open that the instant overload burned every nerve. It’s a wonder I didn’t wander, blind, right into the path of some truck.

I remember thinking: this is how empathy comes—in the dark, in the quiet, open to everything, even danger. And this is how it goes—in a steel box, hurtling through the morning with a thousand other steel boxes, never seeing the being you just crushed. Never feeling it. Because you’re late, again, and, in this job climate, you can’t afford to lose work. You’re isolated from the world, but the world, to you, is an office with fluorescent lights that make your eyes hurt, or a big box store or some other dank place where you put in your hours. So the car is a kind of refuge, for a little while. from that world. You never know the other world—what kind of plants grow on the side of the highway you travel every day, what those plants feel like or smell like. You can’t know, because to stop the rush doesn’t pay the rent. It’s designed that way.

“Soon, Earth may be blanketed by tens of thousands of satellites, and they’ll greatly outnumber the approximately 9,000 stars that are visible to an unaided human eye.

The absolute lack of regard for the subsequent harm that this will inflict upon nocturnal sentient animals and fauna is beyond pathological. The arrogance is blatant, astounding, and unequivocal. In addition to physiological harm, this new and unprecedented form of light pollution will disrupt navigation and migration patterns that have evolved within animals, birds, and insects, over millennia.”The rhythm of life is orchestrated by the natural diurnal patterns of light and dark, so disruption to these patterns impacts the ecological dynamics.” Cory Morningstar.

Question anything that takes you away from your senses, and from your fellow humans, and from the other beings with whom you share this achingly beautiful earth. As artists, that’s our job.

George Ault, “Bright Light at Russell Corners”