03 October 2006

Metaphors bite

If there needs to be some kind of sober, feet-on-the-ground, I'm-a-simple-railway-worker-mate-I-don't-understand-this-cultural-studies-crap excuse for this blog, let's put it like this: metaphorical, narrative language can help people understand real although intangible forces better than intellectual jargon.

Case in point: the horror novel Wetbones by John Shirley (original screenwriter for The Crow and follower of "Bob"), 1993. The article by the author linked to above explains one of the major themes of the book - it explains addiction and the personality damage caused by addiction in terms of invisible monsters which feed on pain and degradation - and in terms of people who serve these invisible monsters. Interestingly enough, we're not only talking about chemical addiction here - we're talking about emotional dependance and abusive relationships, on the personal and on the personality-cult level.

(As an aside, the infallible litmus test of whether an organisation is a cult or just a bunch of idiots is whether initative is accepted and praised, or whether intellectual and/or emotional dependence in a leader or a leadership clique is encouraged. In other words, the difference between proletarian-activist and pettybourgeois-moralist-religious consciousness is totally independent of whatever the actual dogma of the group might be.)

Anyway! I feel that the book loses some of its cool near the end. The author in the essay linked above says something like he was avoiding people accusing him of preachiness, and decided to ramp up the horror-story aspects of the book rather than to carry on with the socio-economic commentary. A huge pity - because the guy comes very, very close in the novel to actually making his story of invisible psychic worms a discussion of alienation under capitalism.

Case in point: Tom Prentice, the title character discussed in the author's essay. A struggling author who is offered the big break of his life (plus the opportunity to have lots of dirty sex with a hot girl) in return for distracting his mate from investigating the aforesaid invisible-worm-worshipping cult. Later, feeling remorse, he says something like "they've turned me into my worst nightmare". Something which has undoubtedly been said by every working writer in Los Angeles at some stage - including John Shirley. (I am reminded of that guy who wrote Alf, who was making $5,000 a week and spending $6,000 on heroin. Also of the short story A Working Religion by Larry Sulkis, also a SubGenius.)

Here, the invisible worms are almost redundant. It's the mere fact of compulsion under capitalism which leads Prentice to sell out his friend. If he wants to write, he has to sell his writing. Which means his work, what is most important to him, is no longer his own. (Sex with a hot woman is of course also just another "fringe benefit" of having a prominent place in a corporate institution.) Marx's concept of alienation - where our work, what makes us actually human, is turned against it by the necessity of participating in a cash economy - is demonstrated in all its horror here. Marx himself described capitalism as a vampire - I suppose an invisible worm is an updating of that, for an age where everyone and their sister things vampires are k00l. Like any other addiction, commodity fetishism first creates the desire, then continually not-quite satisfies it.

Another case in point: another main character, believing his daughter to have been murdered, relapses into crack addiction. We follow him into the nastiest ghettos in Los Angeles, seeing close up exactly what grinding poverty and addiction have done to those most vulnerable. It's not clear whether Shirley is suggesting that drug addiction is responsible for all the horror he sees, or whether it is an understandable response to being the throw-away remnants of society, the "dark depths" of a city which is supposed to be "shallow". (Well, everything looks one-dimensional if you only look at the surface.) But it's obvious that addiction and oppression go together. Crack is the modern-day opium of the masses.

I thought the book would have been more powerful if they hadn't made the invisible worms parasites on all forms of addiction. That ideology suggests that if humanity could just make itself somehow psychically immune, we could all be making our own decisions and surely everything would be better. That avoids the dark reality that perhaps reality is like it is because that's how people want it. Or more precisely - that addictions, whether to chemicals or to abusive personal relationships or whatever - are a natural reaction to the world the way it is. Unlike in the novel, no-one is forcing anyone into drug-heaven or mind-control relationships. Those are simply lifestyle options which seem rational responses to the world-as-it-is. We work jobs which force us to switch off our individual personalities to the extent necessary to do something worthless to us but profit-making to a boss. We come home and all the entertainment options available also want us to "go to sleep", to not be aware, to forget. Heroin and charismatic religion are only more concentrated forms of the basic logic of how our whole culture works.

The point I wanted to make was that these cultural metaphors sometimes make the reality of how the cultural superstructure of how capitalism work far more understandable to ordinary people than jargon-words like "alienation" or "false consciousness". If people were to act as if there were invisible worms which wanted us to fall asleep, to not be aware, to waste our energy doing things that were useless to us, to be fixated on consumption rather than activity for its own fault, they might be able to combat the real forms of ideology more effectively. As long as we all remember that these are metaphors, of course. We don't want to make the mistake of the British weird-fiction author Lawrence Miles, who expressed a metaphorical view of the world to his psychiatrist without making it clear that it was a metaphor and came near to being put on antipsychotic medication for his trouble.

So perhaps if this blog and my whole intellectual project have a theme, they are to translate the categories of Marxist analysis, via the narrative images of modern media-culture, into forms which everyone would be able to understand and use, for purposes of psychic self-defence. If there's any problem with John Shirley's vision, it's that he doesn't make the step past individual to collective solutions. Like any good petty-bourgeois (or SubGenius, for that matter), Prentice's happy ending is to sell a movie script while living as a hermit in a caravan in the desert. If we all did that, of course, who'd deliver the groceries or build our computers?