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The Situation: Exiting the Circus of Nationalism


Terence McKenna once said that people in the western world need to stop consuming culture and begin to create culture—or words to that effect.1  Our society is a consumer society.  We live less in a democracy and more in a capitalist state.  The Situationists2 described the prevailing culture of their time as one of commodity and spectacle.  How much more true this must ring in our own time.  At the beginning of the twenty-first century, U.S. president George W. Bush urged his citizenry to respond to the “terrorist threat” with violence and spending.  Both are old stories, old situations.  What is new, perhaps, is the overt blatancy of the utterances: “smoke ‘em out,” and, essentially, “work and go shopping.”

            Who are we in America?  Consumption-crazed cowboys, apparently.  The national spectacle became a bizarre b-movie reality: terror threats and alert systems, anthrax scares, patriotic consumerism, frighteningly passive business-as-usual.  This surreal scene seemed to thinking people utterly terrifying in its bland acceptance and banality.  Essentially what we had was a figurehead dictator making declarations of all-out war, lacing them with simplistic patriotic platitudes and prayers, and encouraging sheepish citizenry to remain penned-in and braced and angry towards some vaguely unknowable outside terrorist threat.  Abstraction: smoke out your externalized demons: those others out there.  Concrete illustration: demonize Osama bin Laden, channel the collective fear and terror into outrage and anger.  Having done that, the Nationalistic power-that-be were unrestrained to direct public hatred and fear where they would, like machine-gun bursts strafing the alien worlds of foreign countries, those who are not “us.”

 

 

“Two basic Situationist concepts are ‘commodity and ‘spectacle’.  Capitalism has made all of social relations commodity relations: The market rules all.  People are not only producers and consumers in the narrow economic sense, but the very structure of their daily lives is based on commodity relations.  Society ‘is consumed as a whole—the ensemble of social relationships and structures is the central product of the commodity economy.’  The spectacle, then, is the culture that springs from the commodity economy—the stage is set, the action unfolds, we applaud when we think we are happy, we yawn when we think we are bored, but we cannot leave the show, because there is not world outside the theater for us to go to.”

–Carol Ehrlich, “Socialism, Anarchism, and Feminism”2

 

In her essay, penned sometime around 1977, Carol Ehrlich goes on to assert that “the societal stage has begun to crumble,” which leads to the possibility of the Situational “reinvention of everyday life.”

The crumbling which Ehrlich observed in 1977 is happening again now in 2008.  After seven intensely repressive years of fear, trauma, backwards movement, and deliberately incited loathing and hatred, the American people are waking up to the unreality of their situation.  Slowly recovering from cultural myopia, amnesia, and blindness, we find our parallels in our own cultural spectacles: somehow we find our situation resonant with the eerie and trippy films of a decade ago: The Truman Show, The Matrix.  Are we actors, character actors, programmed characters reacting to the constructed situations we find ourselves in?  Are there, indeed, hidden doors everywhere, glitches in the system to be exploited?  Why this heavy sense of déjà vu, of poignancy, this eerie and otherworldly sense of psychic disturbance, of indefinable cosmic connection?  Is it the spectacle of the New Age we are responding to?

If you thought The Matrix was spectacular and heady, citizen, you should watch eXistenZ.  The lines and scenarios blur.  Situation?  Spectacle?  Commodity?  The terms infect each other and bleed, oozing existential nightmares into a pit of swirling (un)realities.

            I digress.  I don’t mean to suggest that we are all psychotics, deluded characters on a Hollywood set, all of us Being John Malkovich.  Yet we are in this matrix of product and consumption, looking for meaning in funhouse television mirrors.  Should we follow the white rabbit?  If we do, will we find ourselves in the bathtub in the body of Dr. Gonzo, terminally tripping, yelling for Raoul Duke to throw the radio into the water at the climax of the song?3

 

Boom.  Armageddon.

 

Which brings us back to the current spectacle: the War on/of Terror.  With the cradle of civilization, so-called, destitute and baking in steaming invisible clouds radiating depleted uranium, with Osama bin Laden—the devil, may I take this opportunity to remind you—abandoned and discarded in the rabid quest for scapegoats, vengeance, WMD, and—let’s not kid ourselves—oil—where do we go from here?  Fade out and cut scene to Iran?  No, no.  Don’t want that.

 

Situation:  leave Iraq.  Make reparations?

Situation:  question authority. 

Situation:  withdraw support from the spectacle of capitalism.

Situation:  live locally, conscious and aware.

 

Situation:  an election year!

2008.

The great multicultural hope fight: Obama versus Clinton.  Will the champion be the audacious African-American vanguard senator, or the blue blood feminist (really?) senator who stood by her unfaithful man?4  Goddamn!  What a spectacle!

 

Situation:  out in the stands, the cheap seats, the impoverished, uninsured blight that is now the birthright of every red-blooded American.  You put down your cigar, red-white-and-blue pom-poms, your popcorn box.  You tear off your war medals and campaign buttons, having had enough of the spectacle.  You focus on your work: your unique expression of being human in a dehumanized culture, your particular way of yearning for community, for culture, for creation.  Passionately, unencumbered by the noise pollution and popular fantasies that abound, you begin to cultivate the miraculous, multifaceted beings that are within you.  Gardens, worlds, microbes, interstellar imaginations all begin to unfurl from seeds.  Independence and a recognition of a simplified interdependence.  These new, constantly updated markets don’t serve you.  This federal freedom trip has been a crude racket, a poorly designed stage.

From outside the arena where politics-as-usual continue, you can see how artificial the stage has been: floodlights, jury-rigs, rickety beams, discarded cups and generic labels.  These people on the outside, who are they?  They seem like hell-bent pagan carnies, crafting graffiti on the outside structure, skateboarding away, laughing like unkempt hyenas.  One of them offers you a drink.

“Hey, Truman,” she says.

Conversations blossom around you; conversations of all colors. 

“Glad you could join us,” someone says, winking in and out of existence, a Cheshire cat.  In the distance, a clock melts.  A castle on a giant boulder floats.  Beyond those horizons, who knows?  In the sky, northern lights, fire rainbows.

 

 

Notes

 

  1. Terence McKenna, psychedelic visionary and self-described ‘cunning linguist’, wrote such books as Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge; The Archaic Revival; and True Hallucinations.  The immediate reference can be found in this context: http://youtube.com/watch?v=ARIG-BQRATs, but also check out http://roychristopher.com/terence-mckenna-meets-the-machine-elves-of-hyperspace-struck-by-noetic-lightning  Also of interest is Terence’s rap and rave over the music of SpaceTime Continuum, caught on CD as Alien Dreamtime; transcript available here: http://users.lycaeum.org/~sputnik/mckenna/alien.html, video here: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-2395498051948678069
  2. My understanding of the Situationists is second-hand and underdeveloped.  My limited knowledge of them comes from an essay by Carol Ehrlich, entitled “Socialism, Anarchism, and Feminism,” in a small anthology by the name of Quiet Rumours: an Anarcha-Feminist anthology.  The entire anthology can be accessed online at http://www.anarcha.org/sallydarity/QuietRumoursIndex.htm
  3. If you don’t know who these characters are, you should watch Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Like all of the other movies referenced in this essay, it is from one decade ago.
  4. It would be very cool to see Cynthia McKinney in the White House.  Barack Obama will do in a pinch.  And we are definitely in a pinch, yo.

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