22 April 2007

More on The Matrix

I sometimes wonder whether there really was a "Nineties". We know what the 80's were - big hair, shoulder pads, glorified selfishness, armageddon chic - as the MST3K crew put it, "do a lot of coke and vote for Ronald Reagan". The 70's were afros, disco, free love, punk, the oil crisis, things falling apart in general. And I don't need to explain what the 60's were, surely.

Dunno about the 90s in general, but we have a symbol of the late 90's in particular - The Matrix. I watched it last night for the first time in ages, and while still a lot of fun, it seemed quite dated in a way - not just because everyone has ripped off its most vital visual effects for crappy, third-rate action movies (and its gothic/industrial/vinyl aesthetic). I haven't thought about this in depth yet, but could we say that The Matrix is the ultimate movie of the era of Fukuyama's "end of history"; the era when new age "personal potential" belief systems were at their most popular; the high point of "liberal imperialism", where relaxed, laid-back dudes who appealed to the cultural intelligensia were doing the bombing (Clinton could invade places that Dubya would never dare); and of course the era of the dot-com bubble, when people really seemed to believe that The Internet - or the Y2K problem (remember that, anyone?) would fuck the shit up of our whole social system altogether.

(Is it possible that this disappointment of the cultural intelligensia's technoutopian/technoapocalyptic fantasies are behind the dismissive labels that young people use to describe their primary social outlet? I think the slightly sneering tone of labels like "teh intarwebz", "intertubes" or even "interbutt" are a reaction to the hushed and glorified tones that The Internet was described in back in the Matrix days. We now know that technology will not solve all our problems for us, or even give us a new set of problems. The problems of society are virtually the same that they were in 1973, when the current historical era began.)

Welcome to the Noughties. We are now in the era of 9/11, Islamophobia, the global anti-capitalism and anti-war movements, when we have been forcibly reminded that there is still an "outside" to globalised capitalism and its ideology, when internet technology has been subsumed into the dominant paradigm with only a marginal effect on the relations of productions. In retrospect, The Matrix seems a nostalgia trip - cute, but faintly embarrassing, as I supposed the hippy 60's looked from looking back from the fraught 70's.

11 April 2007

Some disconnected, vital thoughts

The motif of harmful sensation - in other words, the belief that "memes" have an independent existence and spread like viruses - is on one hand another self-comforting masturbatory fantasy of the people who create memes. ("Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind"? No disrespect to the Romantics, but only a poet could have thought that one up.) Workers and professionals in the intellectual/creative industries love to buy consumption goods which spread the message that "dreams shape the world", that "stories can change people's minds like magic", that all the world will dance to your tune if you figure out the magic word. Funny, that. A good marketing decision by Messers Gaiman, Stephenson and Pratchett - flatter your audience that they themselves are at least potentially kick-ass magic users.

On the other hand it's a kind of a distorted mirror of the way ideology actually spreads. It becomes plausible if you can cause yourself not to see the real social factors which determine which "memes" survive and which don't - that is, if you are a cultural "Wizard of Oz" determined to pay not attention to the force of Capital behind the curtain.

A hard law of the dialectic is that blind idealism always has a dirty materialist secret running in the background (and vice versa: Stalinism is the mirror image of this). If you seriously believe that "culture" is something which exists independently of material/economic realities, then it becomes easy to believe that North American and European capital dominates the world because of "our culture". (Although I wonder how these people explain China or Japan.) And it's a short step from there to seeing "alien cultures" as the enemy - which leads directly to "liberal imperialism". If you have decided that people are psychologically or culturally "sick" because, for example, they get offended by racist caricatures of their major religious figures, then it's all too easy to turn a blind eye when people with the right "culture" bomb the crap out of them and steal their oil. These people are like children and cannot be trusted with wealth or sovereignty.

The social liberalism of the new middle classes is also liberal imperialism - it consists of making up cultural excuses for acts of brutality carried out for the sheer naked greed of capital accumulation. Once again, imaginary solutions to real problems. The class position of the new middle class - their belief that symbols, language and "memes" are what is truly important - leads to their complete inability to defend people who are really up at the sharp end of neoliberalism and mass murder. They know deep down that their privileged position selling images and narratives depends on the exploitation and oppression which makes "manufacturing consent" necessary. The academic/publishing/artistic/infotech circles of this world are increasingly talking themselves directly into the Green Zone in Baghdad.