Theoretical Resurrection: Aesthetic Theory and the Anesthetic World

In a December 8, 2016 interview with NPR’s Marketplace, outgoing Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, absolutely unaware, explained clearly enough why we face the potential end of human civilization and the potential end of the world. Arguing that the selling of his coffee could not be compared to the selling of pizza because pizza is “too much of a commodity,” Schultz said, “I think it’s not just the coffee, it’s the experience.” Schultz goes on to compare his coffee shops to cathedrals and even argues that they might function as the locus for some sort of reinvigorated American community:

I think we’re living in an age right now where people are spending much more time, as you know, at home, on their screen, on their phone. There’s a longing, and even more so in the future, for human connection and a sense of community. Starbucks has been the third place between home and work, and we’re going to become even more relevant in the future.

The absolute collapse of thought here is both striking and telling and perhaps would even be something we might consider prophetic were it not that its realization would utterly revoke the very idea of a future that might exist to be foretold: the total commodification of experience itself–and this is what Schultz is so naively blind to in his own statement, that the commodities he traffics in have come to colonize human experience itself–plunges us fully into the logic of unrestrained capital, which is an extension of the logic of unrestrained material domination and is the same logic that perpetuates, to mention only a few of the seemingly intractable evils we face, racism, misogyny, and the rising tides of global climate change. Schultz is presumably a good neo-liberal, committed to nothing much but the fantasy of the market, and his one-time attempt to lessen the race-based tensions in this country by commodifying the experience of those tensions one barista at a time is surely a testament to the deeply engrained ideology that the market can and will solve everything once everything is dissolved without remainder into the market’s set of possible solutions. Indeed, according to the logic, the market is the only thing we might look to in order to solve such problems and, furthermore, it is only that which enters the market, only that which is made to submit entirely to the market’s demands of quantification and exchangeability–or “monetization” as people have developed a terrible habit of saying–, that can be properly accounted for and therefore considered a “real” thing. All else, we are told, is fantasy, “idealism,” metaphysics, religion, childishness, or whatever. The triumph of the ideology of capital, of material domination, is so complete most people no longer seem willing to conjure even a single thought contrary to it: at best we give up, proclaiming, “well, that’s how the world is,” before we ever start. Thus we do not waste too much time in thoughtful, reflective experience of the world, which would cause us to stray too much from the tasks that have been assigned to us by the logic of the world’s administration, most importantly in the present context, that primary task of Americans: to give over ever more completely to the processes of consumption and, moreover, to come to believe that the experience of these processes is identical to experience itself and is perhaps even that thing people once called life. We are meant to come to believe we all ought to be willing to live in the name of this atrocity’s perpetuation. Trump isn’t just a nationalist or a white nationalist or whatever else, however much he may currently embody those ideas; he is–and we must recognize this if we are to understand it and the specific challenge human survival now faces–a capitalist of these things: he capitalizes upon them. Like all fascists, he represents a modernization of an ancient barbarity. His victory, pyrrhic though it was, came in the form of the consolidation of a new market segment; all politics of demography or identity function as such. Trump is a capitalist of nationalism and white supremacy, among other things. They are his bread and his butter and a good deal of his opulence. We probably ought note for good measure that most of the pathetic group of people who pass for the left in this country, the Democratic Party I was once a member of, even with all my doubts of it, are themselves also capitalists of identity politics, among other things. The Nazi Richard Spencer who recently came to national attention for his “Heil Trump” speech in Washington DC said in an interview with Mother Jones, “Race is real, race matters, and race is the foundation of identity. … White identity politics is inevitable”; Trump’s victory represents a substantial development of that nightmare. The creation of a different world will require fundamentally different approaches, fundamentally different thought. But the public face Trump has made of his white nationalist identity politics is among the vile masks that conceal from those who would resist it the full scope of his vileness, which arises from the inherent psychopathy of a toxic corporate metanationalism. Spencer, mythologizer of his own racist idiocy, attributes these sort of characteristics, which of course he understands positively, to “something Faustian” “in the European soul,” “a drive to dominate.” But such nonsense dissolves in the face of history: the cultivation of such a psychopathy amongst the corporatized class–differently draped as it was at the time and essentially at first an extension of monarchies’ divine right, though stripped of the patina of noblesse oblige–began as soon as modern corporations were born into the slave trade. We must recall at this point that Trump–impossibly small man that he is–is little but his “brand”; he must be understood as an entirely corporatized being, though of course this is nothing but what we should expect in a culture that incessantly implores each of us to develop our own personal brands and images. Trump, utter fraud and utter fool, is in fact the perfect image of “success” in this, the present American system. He is far worse, far more terrible and inhuman, than anyone I could have ever imagined would have come to wield the power of this system in my lifetime, but in this he is also the clearest possible demonstration that ours is a system no one ought to be able to wield the power of. Ours is a totalitarian system and if we are going to survive, it must not. Somewhere inside that realization lurks a possible resurrection of what was once patriotism, though it is very hard to see it since we have forgotten how to think of such things except in the starred, striped, and mostly militarized ways that have been sold to us: one must–against, now, all odds–come to love the places and the people one is among in order to stand up for and with them against such barbarity. The large-scale liquidation of consciousness that has proceeded without pause for well over a half a century now precludes, obviously, even the most basic understanding of what a thing like “class consciousness” might be. “Consciousness,” which resists quantification at every turn, can’t even safely be said to exist anymore. We can’t even imagine.

Such deadened experience is everywhere, and everywhere we look, we find what seeks to deaden us further. It lies entombed in the most basic functional logics of all electronic media and thus gives shape to the virtual space we inhabit more and more every day; it governs–with the help of the near-universal penetration of such media into our lives–our most basic assumptions about, for instance, the supposedly universal virtues of “efficiency” and “success” and our sense that “identity” is the essential personal property. But we must recall that the world the market has created is this one, which is brutal and fascistic, and not accidentally so. If we want to understand, for instance, Trump’s rise to power, we have to begin by understanding that it is an outcome of all of this, all of the world we live in, all of the basic social structures that determine not only our understandings of and expressions about, but even also our most seemingly immediate experiences of the world. This tallest of orders, the successful understanding of which would require that each of us, on an ongoing basis, become committed to actively alienating ourselves from every comfortable moment of our existence, and most especially those moments that appear closest and most comforting–which means, for artists, the experience and composition of art itself–must be taken seriously if there is going to be any possibility of a human future. Schultz is so ideologically alienated from the objective implications and determinations of his thinking that all of his speech becomes a sort of jargon, no matter what he might say. His is a sort of fully realized artificial intelligence. He is what remains of subjectivity when the possibility of subjective freedom has been so absolutely annulled it can no longer even be imagined as a sort of future; colonized entirely by objectivity, subjectivity assumes that–and precisely because the world offers this explanation in the form of ideology–it is already free and nothing at all is really the matter, certainly nothing is the matter that the market, godlike, cannot fix. There is nothing within the experience of Schultz’s thought that could be expressed, and this is because he is not thinking; he merely affirms the present state of affairs and considers how to most efficiently continue its process of exploitation into the future. When confronted with actual thought, this jargon is revealed as nothing but the abyss of all we have tacitly agreed to never think through again, all that we have come to think of as dead history even as it lives on in the contours of our every moment and which for fear of being recognized covers itself over with a nearly impenetrable nonsense. These–thoughts and language that retreat into ideological nonsense the moment they confront objectivity– are the expressive standards of the corporate professional, and they are the same standards by which, increasingly, other professional and indeed all other actions and experiences are judged. Though I have not read it and will not read it, Schultz paid someone to attach his name to a 2011 book called Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul. I assume there’s nothing more to say: by diminishing the concept of a soul until nothing of it remained but that which a corporation might possess, Schultz sealed that deal at Starbucks’s birth. To be born as a corporate citizen is to enter into the world of the undead.

And the rest of us have entered it too; at the very least we have no option but to pass through its corridors; there is at present no other way to go. The more fully we assent to the administration of our experience through our consumption of commodified cultural products, the more fully we have exiled ourselves from the experience of the living, which, amidst the reality of administered life, can only be described as a series of horrors. That I will sound to any number of people like an utter madman saying things like this, saying the world of our everyday experience–no matter how it may appear otherwise to us–is an objective series of horrors, is evidence of the completeness of our assent, en masse and without further question. This assent, the process of which has been unfolding relatively smoothly through the whole post-War period, has, in its official neglect of language, left us in large part without the means by which we might point to it with any sort of officiality; it looms in all of us as the unvoiced terror of being alive today. In America, the Cold War perpetrated a sustained total attack on the concepts of community and solidarity; it obliterated any substantial concept of community solidarity–what we might also call a radical empathy or a capacity for radical mimetic experience–from the culture. Language, which is of course among the most central cultural mediators, the most “mainstream” medium and thus the least recognized and discussed in that regard, has largely been stripped, over the course of this assault, of its capacity to speak at all about such matters. To come again to be able to do so would be a prerequisite to the creation of a genuine community that might begin to first recognize and then imagine its way out of this. What I’m saying is not meant to be alarmist, nor is it meant to be a joke; it is an explanation of, for instance, the emoji and the “meme.” We have so completely internalized the market-based notion that we must only paint in primary colors, only draw in foolish cartoons, only sing in pentatonic scales, and only feel within the confines of a generally accepted range of emotions and in response to a generally accepted range of stimuli that we have forgotten there might be anything else to do or think or experience in the first place. These things are what markets have been created for, they are therefore what sells, and we have learned that only what sells, only what there is a market demand for, only this matters and ought be pursued; only this is real. There is no officially recognized voice for any other thought, and the ability of language to express thought contrary to this has decayed, substantially so. And of course it is not a matter of simply retreating to some earlier state of language. Whatever that mythical good language might seem to be has already been emptied out; to simply reinvoke it now without conceptual critique and recuperation would merely repeat the past, an act that would come off as silly at best and which would be catastrophic–and Trump’s rise, for instance, must be understood as part of the broad worldwide reemergence and refiguring of fascist totalitarianism–at worst. We cannot call ourselves poets if we retreat to the techniques of the past, but at the same time, we must grapple with the reality that, at its best, much poetry today is little but a sort of boutique speech: artisanal, perhaps, but not art; pleasing, but not transformative. I’ve enjoyed an $18 sandwich too, but we must not understand them as a measure of good life or understand that their easy availability makes good whatever genocides presently unfold. Who can even keep track anymore; who, indeed, can bear the pain of any wide awareness of the objective realities of the world much at all? The despair of American life has become such that religion can no longer be trusted to function as the opiate of the masses: given the massive epidemic of addiction, especially amongst the recently notable demographic we’ve decided to call “the white working class,” there is no conclusion to come to but that opioids themselves are now the only thing sufficiently strong to serve the purposes of the opiate of the masses.

What is anesthetic dulls our capacity for the experience of our own objective ugliness and along with it all possibilities of objective beauty. Our culture is an anesthetic one. It works in much the same as the way as the anti-intellectual climate of our culture, which dulls our capacity for the experience of ideas; this, in turn, debases intellectual judgment, which is degraded entirely in those who, for instance, deny climate change or the Holocaust or evolution or privilege or whatever else after falling prey to the propagandists of denialist causes. The consequences of anti-intellectualism are clear, and those of the degradation of our aesthetic judgment are no less serious: when we elevate as judgment’s sole criterion an objectively determined notion of supposedly subjective “taste” while simultaneously nullifying our consciousness of the dialectic between subject and object, we enter a realm of delusion that is structurally inseparable from that of the “denier.” We have long been confronted with the notion that a poem might–and in many cases therefore should strive to–mean just any damn thing to anyone, and the vast majority of people have adopted this notion of their own inescapable objective ignorance as if it were both a sort of freedom and their very own personal idea; even a fair number of poets have adopted it. Though theorists have been dealing explicitly with the problem since at least the mid-1900s, and implicitly since at least Marx, we are only now at the level of the society catching glimpse of what happens when a fact might mean anything to anyone: we come to face–from multiple directions–the end of the world, which anyway we’ve already rendered utterly meaningless. This is not just an inartful world, and it is not just an inartful country that’s elevated a dangerous and ugly buffoon to its presidency. This world, this country, this culture, Donald Trump himself, and the fundamental governing logics of all of these are deeply hostile to art and to beauty and they seek to destroy both because art and beauty, meaningfully conceptualized and confronted with an existence such as this will necessarily hope to destroy the world as it is and transform it into someplace where art and beauty are not entirely alienated from our experience, someplace where art and beauty are not already doomed. Trump offered the chair of the NEA to Sylvester Stallone, who, to his credit, had the good sense to turn it down. Because of his corporate psychopathy, Trump will have never had either an intellectual or an aesthetic experience in the first place; he lacks the human development that creates the capacity for such experiences, and so of course he will be hostile to them: they are among those things he can never experience because their experience is beyond the realm of domineering possession that demarcates the small sphere of his small, damaged, damaging life. Trump cannot experience art or beauty, and whatever art or beauty might be “to him”–most likely something like the possessions he makes of utterly objectified women–is positively meaningless to any objective consideration of these. This is the farce of “subjectivization”: it objectivizes subjectivity itself: it elevates each and every individual’s supposedly immediate interests and experiences to the status of the objective, to the status, that is, of what is to be pursued or desired. Hobbes’s nightmare of bare nature as a war of all against all is thus realized in the social structure itself: the reality of total capital’s universalized competition is exactly what the idea of civilization had sought to avoid. For our ease, a range of pseudo-customizable products have been made available to ameliorate our experience of this terror with the distraction of consumption, an act that consumes any sense of the world beyond us, and which is among the ways we–each administrators ourselves–are expected to perform system maintenance.

We have been conditioned by this same system and its method of subjectivization to consider objective approaches to aesthetic problems as inherently authoritarian. Who is that person, we condescend, to say anything about what I should think of art? We reaffirm art’s meaninglessness with each repetition: it is subjectivization itself that is authoritarian; it gives each subject carte blanche to author the world according to their own blind, isolated, and ideologically determined–and so already in the image of society, already authoritarian– “preferences,” the fact of matters be damned. While some of us may still give science the benefit of the doubt with regard to objectivity, science deniers use the very same logic to avert their own confrontation with objective facts. Well, I believe the world isn’t warming; it snowed today! is not so terribly different than Well, I believe Thomas Kinkade is an artistic genius; he warms my little heart! Internet architectures kill us via the same idiocy: the supposed “openness” of the internet is not neutral; rather, it is nihilistic. An epistemically nihilistic network–a hallmark of capitalism’s demand for exchangeability–, in a world awash in authoritarianized subjectivity, as story after story has recently confirmed, does exactly what one might suspect: it amplifies beyond imagination–and inside of a situation in which most individuals have not developed any imagination to speak of in the first place–the individual user’s existing delusions. Whatever savage stupidity Dylann Roof brought to the table when he began “researching” “crime statistics” on white supremacist propaganda sites was amplified by the factor of a whole world’s worth of brutal ignorant hate by the time he arrived armed at Emmanuel AME Church. When Google technicians have to fret over whether it would be good practice to adjust their algorithm so that the results of the query “did the holocaust happen?” no longer point to neo-Nazi Holocaust denial propaganda, we should begin to wonder whether “good practice” means a thing at all anymore. Journalistic “objectivity” suffers the same failing: across the board we have degraded the idea of neutrality until it became synonymous with a willingness to profit from the rise of fascism. Switzerland did much the same. And for our part, we mostly still go along with the lie that Switzerland was neutral and remain willing to ignore the fact that, for instance, numerous American bankers and industrialists aided Hitler’s rise and profited tremendously from the German war effort. Unrestrained capitalism breeds fascism; it does this through the systematic degradation of both experience and judgment. Neoliberalism never sought more than to moderate some effects of this; over and over again, it has shown that it is not up to even this modest task. If we wish to avoid catastrophe, which looms newly near, or if we merely wish to resist catastrophe even as it overtakes us, we must recuperate these faculties first; there is no possible resistance without them.

The question of judgment having been broached, we are presented, then, with a question of quality, both of the qualitative aspects of experience and our own capacities to apprehend and understand them. Any possible judgment hinges upon questions of qualitative difference. But the realm of the qualitative–which encompasses all of that which can not be dissolved without remainder into the system of quantitative exchange–enjoys no official existence. Qualitative research is barely tolerated in academia and something like it only penetrates mass media in the commodified form of what used to be called “human interest” stories. Moreover, the qualitative aspects of experience have been flattened out by any number of modern technological “advancements,” from, earlier on, the absolute standardization of time to, more recently, the development of mass and “social” mediation: everything arrives in the same standardized increments and through the same standardized channels and in the same standardized packaging: everything has been rendered into the same standardized forms and becomes thereby exchangeable in its contents. What Schultz might be on the cusp of recognizing is that experience has become a matter of exchange, and in its exchangeability, the qualities specific to every particular individual moment are systematically ignored and effaced in the official record of experience. Which is of course not to say that the qualitative cannot, by means of a critical attention and recuperation, begin to be reclaimed. Though CNN’s Anderson Cooper began working to normalize a Trump regime by mentioning Trump’s “charm” as soon as the possibility of a Trump win began to solidify on election night, and though this tactic of normalization–which had, by the morning of the 9th, become universal in mass media–was and is meant to cover over the experience of terror, disbelief, and dissonance so many of us felt at the time, we can and must work, if we hope to understand this subjective experience’s objective determinants, to both preserve and probe at all of the qualitative contours of that moment in order to begin to understand what resistance might entail. We must understand that what struck us dumbfounded and left us feeling as if rudderless in the midst of some terrible storm was in fact a rupture of ideology, not history. In the moment of Trump’s election, we experienced, with a sort of real and really terrible immediacy, our own vast alienation from the realities of the world. The world is not as we had understood it; the principles or rules or trajectories that are currently guiding the course of history are fundamentally different than we had assumed. This is among the reasons it is so genuinely critical to preserve a Marxian theory of ideology: this is not a matter simply of whatever ideas one might have about the world, but it is, rather, a matter of false consciousness, a concept which preserves the possibility that consciousness could become otherwise. To enter the experience of Marxian metaphysics is to stare into the abyss one suddenly realizes one is on the precipice of. On November 8th, all of us who oppose Trump were at least briefly Marxists, no matter whether we realized it or could give it a name; all of us received a glimpse of the great gulf that separates our consciousness of conditions from an actual consciousness of these same. Dutifully, media stepped in without pause to cover over that gap as quickly as possible. We must reflect on our experience of that moment, our glimpse of that chasm, in order to preserve the possibility of a less alienated future; the possibility of unalienated experience can only be conceived of in terms of a critical emancipation from ideology, an ever-growing consciousness of the mediations that shape the possibilities of experience. We must assume our consciousness is always and necessarily false and orient our thinking negatively toward it. Only by means of such a negativity, only by means of critique, might we move toward the conditions of a less alienated world, a world in which human experience might live and transform and grow.

Art can only be understood as a matter of mediation, and the practice of artistic composition is perhaps something we might try to understand in terms of the conscious practice of advanced mediational techniques. Aesthetic theory is the theory that would inform such practice, and any aesthetic theory worth its name would necessarily be arranged in opposition to the mass-cultural anesthetizing of our consciousness of mediation itself. Amidst such anesthetization, ideology tightens like a noose around the neck of the body politic. Only a theory that continually recognizes and continually confronts theory’s practical character, only a theory that makes a practice out of its own process of theorization can help us to come to resist simply moving along with the flow of things, confusing the force of the current with our own desire or expression or what we used to call our “will,” an idea that, after the effective liquidation of individual agency, might strike us now as infinitely archaic. Practical questions, and indeed the question of praxis, all depend, in order to even be asked, on a theory that will allow us to begin to access all that is right in front of us, but that has been, through the power of ideology, placed behind the veil of inaccessibility or in a sort of hall of mirrors which offers us nothing but reflections distorted beyond recognition. Theoretical reflection, today, presents itself to us as a sort of revelatory vision; art might become possible when we develop practical techniques for composing art objects which form the reflection of such a vision. In this world in which nothing is at it appears, in which the gulf between each person’s immediate subjective experience and the objective reality of the world has become so incomprehensibly immense, genuine practice–the work that would bring us toward a better world–can only be imagined in theory, and only after that theoretical image is constructed can it be brought toward realization. All art relies on theory. This is the case whether or not individual practitioners recognize and reflect upon it; this is inescapable. Aesthetic theory informs aesthetic practice. Both are matters, at the end of the day, of reflecting upon the reflective character of experience itself: how the world enters each of us and how each of us enters the world. Aesthetic theory is, in other words, a theory of practice, namely, the practice of reflective imagination’s mediation. Without such a theory, a theory of an imaginative practice that dreams of its own actualization, without such a theory any actual resistance, any resistance that will succeed in being resistant and not merely delude itself that it is accomplishing something as it moves passively along with the current remains impossible.

But of course, just like art, theory has long been subjected to the logic of the market: new jargons are invented, new emphases added, but thought has so far not been able to advance us toward a genuinely just or human world: systematic oppression is still very much the order of the day, though we have to an extent agreed to apportion the distribution of that oppression somewhat differently over the years, occasionally even somewhat more justly. New theoretical jargons and “frameworks” present themselves as advances or ruptures, but ultimately they obscure history and thereby take their part in degrading the faculty of judgment, which can only function to the degree that it can move through the historical dimension of experience. This dehistoricization is a marketing strategy, and as the institutions that house theorization have more and more oriented themselves toward market logic, theory, just as art, has increasingly been driven by a cycle of “fashions.” What is fashionable is doomed to disappear meaninglessly into the abyss. The task that faces us now is no less than this: artists must engage the complications and impossibilities of a theory of aesthetic resistance and they must bring this theory so much into their consciousness that it begins to permeate their compositional practice; artists must be reborn as intellectuals in order to be born as artists. The demands of such work are positively onerous, but the only easy things in this world of deadened experience are positively evil; everything that has been made easy perpetuates and strengthens the entire system, which is rapidly foreclosing on the possibility of a future for our species. A world genuinely brought back to life, what Erich Fromm would have called a biophilic world, is currently well beyond the horizons of non-deluded, anti-ideological imagination, but we must imagine as far as we can in such a world’s direction nonetheless. As imaginative practice, as the practice of imagination–the medium par excellence–, artistic practice is a model and precursor of any possible praxis. Like language, imagination has been so deadened by the ideological that it is little but a ghost of itself at this moment in history. It can only be substantially conceived inside an uncompromisingly negative theory of the world that is. This world has no positive value, no positive meaning. Billions starve, incomprehensibly. This life is not to be defended; it is to be let go. It is a nightmare and an abomination. It is a nightmare and abomination and no moment within it is utterly free of these qualities; this is how it blinds us to the qualitative dimension: it makes its experience unbearable. It is a nightmare and an abomination that we have created and that we pledge our allegiance to ever single moment that we take its necessity or meaningfulness for granted. Only total negativity could hope to conjure the simultaneous resurrection of theory and art and a sense of metaphysical bearings. Short of this we are lost, and we will continue to be so until we do the conscious work of becoming otherwise.

Jeffrey Schultz is the author of two National Poetry Series Selections: Civil Twilight (Ecco, forthcoming 2017), and What Ridiculous Things We Could Ask of Each Other (University of Georgia Press, 2014). His poems have appeared in Poetry, TriQuarterly, and Boston Review, and on Poetry Daily, PBS NewHour’s Art Beat, and the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Pepperdine University and lives in Los Angeles with his wife and a seemingly ever-increasing number of rescue animals.