Friday, 10 April 2020

Book review: Aftershocks, Anthony Macris (2019)

If pressed for time perhaps save the link to this review, which has about 3900 words, so you can read it later on. Apologies for the length but this wonderful book – a fundamentally generous gesture that signals at a better future for humanity than the one we are often given to view in popular culture – warrants careful consideration. It contains book reviews and essays, as well as interviews the author participated in. Its scope is equally broad: Macris asks us to look at not just the role of the artist in society, but its very nature. Not only how we go about earning a living but how we create meaning in our lives (the two things being, of course, due to time constraints, inextricably linked).

The pieces here started being made in the final decades of last century, and most have been published elsewhere but some are published now for the first time. To start with the literary criticism, for me the best articles in this category are the negative reviews. I love it when Macris lets rip with an author of popular fiction such as Iain M. Banks, whose (to me, garish and unreadable) scifi fantasies are popular with fans of the genre. I disagree with Macris on some particulars, for example with regard to the work of David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon. And I think Bret Easton Ellis’ 2005 novel ‘Lunar Park’ is a great read. But when it comes to niche genres we agree that there is often a disappointing lack of form even if the ideas themselves might be, because of the dictates of the class of art you are dealing with, largely out of bounds. Speculative fiction trades in various forms of unreality. This in itself is fine but works of literature endure on the basis of their style (all art does) so if the writing is bad, in time nothing will save it from itself.

For those, like me, who were not properly educated in the intricacies of postmodernist discourse, reading the essays at the beginning of the book might be a kind of revelation. I felt like Dante being guided through the underworld by Virgil.

In a piece in the “film” section titled ‘Waves of Love: J.L. Mankiewicz’s “All About Eve”’, Macris asks us to look at the ways that we, ourselves, not just artists, obey the dictates of our nature by seeking out the approval of others in our community. I thought about the consonance of this essay with a passage in a book I read just after I finished ‘Aftershocks’. A memoir, ‘The Tennis Partner’, chronicles a doctor’s passage from living with his family in El Paso, Texas, to single life. Abraham befriended a student of his, an Australian named David who was studying medicine in the US. David had originally won a scholarship on the basis of his tennis prowess. David and Abraham played tennis often, and in their games as well as the conversations they had with each other both found solace in the face of adversity. On one occasion when they met after an absence, David was full of excitement and wanted to talk about something. Abraham wrote much later:
He had so many insights that he wanted to validate by sharing them with me, so many friendships with others who had made similar voyages. He had heard incredible stories of compulsion and dependence. He had a firm sense of emerging from a dark tunnel.
In both of these works – a 1951 movie and a 1998 memoir – moments of shared pleasure or pain – complex feelings, at least – are manifest through the creation of meaning. This is also the place where economic value can be exchanged. Is it only by sharing things that are true to our nature that we create meaning, or anything of value? How does Modernism – which Macris in one essay says is concerned with the subjective – help us to discover things about the realm of the personal? Does the subjective need to be shared to be validated, helping us to know things that otherwise would remain hidden? Is this the true purpose of art or is art about making things that do not yet exist in the real world but only – perhaps – in our minds? And, is art different from fashion?

Anything goes

I’ll come back to such questions later but first I want to remark on an ancillary point made in ‘Aftershocks’ that struck me with some force. Like Macris I think that the times, in terms of artistic expression, have changed and that we are, now in the first decades of the new millennium, living in a period that will be labelled one day with a new word. No longer Postmodernist, but something else entirely. In his introduction Macris remarks on the shift that has taken place:
[What] does the term ‘postmodernism’ mean today? As I was putting this collection together, I was struck by how many of the writers I reviewed, often associated with postmodernism, seemed to be conducting an investigation into what comes after postmodernism. In this quest to find a name for the period we find ourselves in, there are a number of contenders – post-postmodernism, the new sincerity, metamodernism, pseudo-modernism, and so on – but no clear consensus has emerged. Yet it is clear that what might come after postmodernism doesn’t seem all that cheery.
Maybe it’s not so bad, though. It might depend on how you view the phenomenon. I have called this new phase “Divergism” in order to reflect the ways that the market has fractured into a thousand discrete communities, each with its own gods, prophets, and disciples. I wrote about my ideas here and here but it is evident that Macris has been heading in this direction for a while. In 2000, for example, writing a review for the Bulletin titled ‘20/20’ – about an exhibition titled ‘World Without End’ held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales – he noted that
images now circulate through the vast television, cinematic and digital networks that have proliferated with terrifying rapidity in the last decades of the century
And though there is bulk in the mass of texts, images and videos that has grown in the 20 years since that was written, there is also structure. Niches are as varied and numerous as the platforms themselves in a restive marketplace where money and symbols are constantly exchanged. For each niche there is fan art, where favoured books and movies are used as a springboard for further creative endeavour on the part of devotees who are as passionate about the objects of their interest as they are faithful to the ideas of the original artists, each of whom has his or her own history and influences. And these artistic products are linked with more abstract ideas, such as equality, equity, justice, and truth.

To illustrate how such an ecosystem can operate, I will briefly look at a public artefact, a tweet I saw on 1 April this year from a New York graphic design student using the Twitter handle @Ron_Salon:
Most Shows on [Netflix] with gay male lead characters that don’t get canceled [sic] give me strength. You know, not like October Faction. Netflix cancels another show with a gay male [person of colour] character. To Netflix diversity and inclusion work only if the gay male is whacko.  
Ron’s comment is not a piece of art but, rather, it is a token of exchange within a specific community. It was posted in reply to one from another account, whose owner had typed, “Nikki Blonsky gives me strength,” which refers to ‘Hairspray’, a 2007 teen movie that deals with such issues as body shape and racism. The actress Nikki Blonsky plays the female lead in the film, a character named Tracy Turnblad, who befriends a group of black students at her secondary school. Now, a TV show Ron refers to in his tweet is one I reviewed in February on this blog. ‘October Faction’ is a fantasy with elements of social commentary where two characters are gay. The parents of one of them: one white and one black. The parents of the other are from an ethnic group with its origins in the subcontinent. I’m not sure how the “whacko” label fits, and it might be that he mistyped a word. The important thing to note in this case is how Ron used the title of a TV show to make a point about something that is closely aligned to his personal beliefs.

Macris addresses the issue of art produced by audiences in a previously unpublished 1996 review of ‘Joseph Beuys in America: Energy Plan for the Western Man’, a book edited by Carin Kuoni with writings by the German artist.
Beuys consistently attacked the reifying effects of specialisation. … The career artist, the professional artist, the artist who fits his works to the needs of means/ends rationality; Beuys was opposed to all these models of art practice.
And a bit further on:
There is a clear Marxist influence in these arguments. The increasing division of labour in capitalism as one of the forces splitting society into ever smaller, ever more isolated units has been well documented even if, in the 1990s, it has lost some of its polemical edge. In his critique of specialisation, Beuys is calling for a more holistic approach to creativity.
Characterised as it is by increasing fragmentation, the market for literature and for films appears to be following a Capitalist paradigm though specialisation is a mode of experience fans themselves embrace when they are faced with (and even when they encourage) representations of their society, or of the world, that embody shared ideas. This is identity politics at work, and it is a facet of the market that companies like Netflix must consider when making shows and uploading them to their servers. Big business is a common bogeyman in popular culture even though it was Netflix that, in the first place, disseminated and made available to Ron the shows he was then able to talk about on Twitter. Macris talks about the way the individual’s subjectivity is used by Capital, in the “society and politics” section of ‘Aftershocks’ where we find ‘The New Millennium: Facades and Duplicities’, a 2001 essay:
In the free market you can have all the inner life you want. Inner lives are good, they’re great for business, as long as they can be externalised and turned into products. And, as the increased commodification of everyday life has shown, there isn’t much that can’t be.
It’s arguable how much all of the user activity is encouraged by businesses and how much of it is a grassroots effort by the audience, but at least Netflix cannot ignore consumers – and, through fan art and social media, producers – of content if it wants to succeed because clumping and tribalism seem to embody a species behaviour, where an “in group” is ranged against an “out group”. People are included or excluded using language, or using other representations of things, people, or places that are inscribed with meaning. (Macris explains the idea of the “socius” in ‘Words & Worlds: Joyce, Duras, Kundera’, an essay from 2007, and also uses it in an interview with academic Anthony Uhlmann published in the journal Axon in 2015; both are included in ‘Aftershocks’.) The use of a movie like ‘Hairspray’ to create community happens all the time and we can see this process in action on social media. Rather than “buy now!” the cry heard in every hashtag is “must watch!”, an exhortation as mundane as any other form of marketing jargon, but that ordinary people use enthusiastically as they feverishly try to connect with potential allies and consumers.

And what are the aesthetics of social media? Do fashion and art constitute dual loci or are they related in some way? Does fashion make bad art palatable, so that it won’t be rejected (leading to money being wasted)? And to what extent are the feelings of the audience influencing plots and characterisation used in such shows as ‘October Faction’? How important to the creative process are the views of consumers, and if an artist makes allowances for their biases does it dilute or enhance his or her vision?

The creature behind the mask

The problem with labels is that as soon as you articulate yourself using one, someone will offer another. Modernism is full of such shifts, some of them very small, with variations in style over time. If you use a word like “duplicity” when you are at the office you’ll likely receive a warning from a manager. If you call an aesthetic mode “Divergist” someone will rock up and call it something else. People are naturally aggressive but they crave community.

I was reminded of Macris’ meditation on the final scene of ‘All About Eve’ when, earlier this month, I watched a documentary about a competitor named Luciana Aymar. In one scene from the end of her career, Lucha, as she is known in her native Argentina, is shown about to join a match between two hockey teams. The stands are full of fans shouting her name and on our screens we eagerly watch them watching her; as the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) shows us, humans yearn to be united, and sport offers this kind of reprieve from the pain of living independently. Knowing this, the filmmakers – who we never see – show Lucha close-up, her face slightly raised so that her jaw is horizontal and her strong chin points toward the field of play as she waits for the voice that will allow her to move her feet and run out to join her teammates. We identify with her for a few moments – she is elated – and as she channels the passion of the audience she resembles a predator ready to spring.

History tells us this that people have always been this way; I’m talking about both Lucha and the spectators (but also the filmmakers). What changes over time is the expressive mode used to harness such impulses. This is as true for society as it is for art. We are not born free, but are rather shackled always to our physicality, a painful impasse, at times, that art can help to alleviate because it offers access to imaginary realms beyond the confines of matter. Netflix has some movies on its servers that were made in the 1980s but perhaps it’s time for managers to release some 50s classics so that more people can be exposed to films made by the Boomers’ grandparents. What a shock that would serve! After reading about half of this book I thought about the title used to bundle its contents and decided that it maps the aftershocks of Modernity. Throughout history, like the sound that comes after rapping a tuning fork on a hard surface, shifts over the long term follow tonic events. For example, Europeans’ gradual awakening, starting in the final decades of the 15th century, to a new reality – suddenly there were two additional continents on the earth containing their own peoples and their own cultures – as they started to see themselves through a fresh lens.

Similarly, the 20th century was a time of great change, WWII especially serving a tremendous shock to the global community and spawning a radical counterculture that thrived during the economic boom of the years that followed it. In a sense WWII created, for the first time, a global community. The internet accelerated this change in the individual’s conception of him- and herself, and such companies as Netflix, which is the first global TV station, have cemented those gains in tangible (though partly electronic) form. A single marketplace with products from almost every corner of the earth. One dazzling portal; unrestrained diversity.

The essay on Beuys’ book shows that the market and creativity have occupied Macris’ mind for at least a generation. This consistency is worth noting. One issue that pops up again and again in ‘Aftershocks’ is the complexity inherent in the figure of the artist, as the artist can stand in for everybody. And in ‘Autographic’, a review of two art shows held in Sydney in 2006 that was published in the Bulletin, Macris unveils briefly a conception of the individual living in the world as “an infinitely fragile thing” that is often protected by a mask, reprising a theme expressed in a piece written after he interviewed American photographer Cindy Sherman, that in 1999 was also published in the Bulletin.

I want to briefly look at a concept introduced by academic Anthony Uhlmann in the final interview in the book, which is titled, ‘The Analogue Real and the “Capital” Novels: Thinking the Real and the City in Literature.’ In discussing some of Macris’ fiction, Uhlmann uses a term he had developed – the “analogue real” – and describes it in this way:
The way in which writers organise their novels will depend upon, or be informed by, the ideas they have about how the world works. I called it the ‘analogue real’. It is easy to understand. What I mean is that if you have an idea of what the ‘real’ is – from philosophy, say, or religion, or science, some other domain of knowledge that is capable of offering a broadbrush picture of how the world functions – you will, consciously or unconsciously, structure your novel in a way that answers that idea of the real, that adapts to it.
A writer with certain biases and preconceptions about the world will embed such ideas in his or her works. Many people – though a minority of people – feel alienated from popular culture because it doesn’t consone with their view of the world. We might choose not to take bad art seriously because we understand the forms of the relevant genre and go with the flow, laughing along with whatever corny routine is served up as entertainment for us. But in our daily lives we might also come into contact with realities that are at odds with our personal beliefs. To deal with this in our social or professional lives we wear a kind of mask, in the form of a persona.

In a digitised world of avatars and icons, of virtual buttons and hyperlinks, all of us are familiar with symbolic representations, so the concept is easy to understand. In his book, Macris does more than highlight the contrast between the interior life of the individual and his or her persona, he also touches on the issue of our complicity in the marketplace of ideas and of real value. In the 2001 essay ‘The New Millennium: Facades and Duplicities’ mentioned earlier in this article, he talks about a character in a novel he eventually published in 2012 but which percolated in his mind for a good deal of time. Her name is Penny and she works at a job placement agency. She must “lie and smile at the same time” to keep her job, writes Macris, anticipating ideas of my own published in a post on this blog on 12 August last year:
[To] get ahead in an organisation you have to believe in its virtue and you have to be skilful at lying without being caught doing it. A strange amalgam of duplicity and conformity is what will help you to progress in your career.
This consonance is possibly fortuitous – some years ago I read the novel ‘Great Western Highway’, where Penny appears – but in fact it is not surprising. The things Penny has to put up with in order to perform her role are familiar to anyone who has held a regular office job for any length of time. The brand of ennui she experiences as she earns her pay is commonplace.

The market and the ecosystem

Just as an artist might not immediately be rewarded for his or her creativity – a novel idea might be ignored because its value is not understood, while common tropes are shared widely because everyone groks the meme – in the workplace the dictates of the subjective mind might not be understood by colleagues and so a kind of camouflage must be used. A general conundrum is that only by living in a community can we realise our true species nature, and be happy. This should mean being rewarded for things that are particular to us as individuals. Or, perhaps, are we already being so rewarded? Competitive people are given access to more resources because they are usually better at achieving institutional goals. Do we achieve happiness due to the essence of our nature or despite it? Perhaps the answer to this question is: both. Or else: different things at different times. Lying is different from telling the truth only in terms of its effects on others, but uninterrupted solitude is just as bad as constant exposure to their judgement. Lying might be a solution to the problem of monotony but do we lie only when telling the truth is attached to too great a cost, or are we more perverse than that? People lie all the time on social media so mendacity and duplicity seem to be more than just commonplace; are, instead, endemic.

Rather than using our creative talents to lie at work or to perform a wicked feint with our stick to get past a defender on the hockey field, might we not all think of ourselves as artists? Can art form a preferable vehicle for humankind’s competitiveness? We encourage children to be creative but once we reach our majority we seem to think that making art is at best optional. Macris appears to have been exercised for a long time by the belief that adults, too, are creative, suggesting that we can perhaps use such talents in places other than at work, in social situations, or in sport. An implication being that if more people had an art practice we would be served up better cultural products as the audience would be more discerning as to the quality of what it consumes.

Let a thousand flowers bloom! Relevance for artists struggling in today’s marketplace of kitsch and cliché, of Disney franchises and Marvel spin-offs, might be delayed by our blind obedience to fashion. Some might not enjoy success in their lifetime, others will be conceded the esteem of posterity. But many people with superior aesthetic acumen who, 200 years ago, might have written mediocre poetry, nowadays work in a creative industry – in film or in advertising or as a freelance copywriter. And social media, where such legacy influencers as journalists and writers compete with everybody else for attention, has given people access to audiences at scale.

So perhaps spring has well and truly entered in. If you are old enough to remember a different time, is the territory you now survey filled with brighter blossoms or is the quality of what’s made available too poor to warrant regard? Or is it like Twitter’s Netflix hashtag? (An occasional elegant bon mot sitting under a Thai spam post that offers a service with less appeal – if that is possible – because it is repeated ten times an hour.)

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