By Geoff Olson
Whatever happened to socially observable time?
For most of the last century, the North American cultural landscape— its art, music, design, entertainment, and fashion — transformed every 10 to 20 years. “But these days, even as technological and scientific leaps have continued to revolutionize life, popular style has been stuck on repeat, consuming the past instead of creating the new,” Kurt Anderson observed in a 2011 Vanity Fair article.
In the three years since Anderson’s article, there has been little to contradict the author’s words.
Other than our electronic gadgets and their associated services, striking originality has been in short supply for over a decade. Automobiles have barely changed in design. Musical styles are recycled, from nineties’ grunge and hip hop to eighties’ synth to seventies’ soul. Architecture hasn’t really moved past Frank Gehry’s melting edifices of the nineties. As for films, in the late eighties, Hollywood producers began to rifle through the back catalogue of sixties-era Marvel and DC Comics, and we’ve been flooded with superhero sagas and sequels ever since.
Fashion is also in suspended animation, confined to a bowerbird aesthetic that gathers handbags and glad rags from previous decades. The vintage look – with its porkpie hats, plaid shirts, and moustaches – is more about depression-era chic than hipster originality.
Online commentators have pegged this phenomenon of stalled time, “hauntology,” in homage to the late postmodernist thinker, Jacques Derrida. The French prof mused about a supposed “end of history,” in which the present would be defined in terms of the past, with people orienting themselves towards ideas and aesthetics that are antiquated or “old-timey.” Hence the “haunting” of the present by the “ghost” of the past.
Derrida’s clever wordplay raises more questions about cultural stagnation than answers. The most practical explanation I have found yet is from the blog of BBC documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis.
In a recent lengthy post, “Now Then: The Hidden Systems That Have Frozen Time and Stop Us Changing The World,” Curtis begins with a capsule history of surveillance, from private detective agencies to tiny, Bond-like spy cameras to the data-mining server farms of corporations. This takes him toward “the incredibly powerful computer network” Aladdin, which guides the investment of over $15 trillion of assets around the world.
Aladdin examines all possible future financial outcomes and guides investments toward those with the best possible outcome. It’s owned by the big money manager Blackrock, which “manages as much money as all the hedge-funds and the private equity firms in the world put together.” In effect, “Blackrock’s system is in shaping the world – it’s more powerful in some respects than traditional politics…it’s aim is to not change the world – but to keep it stable,” Curtis observes.
If you’re looking for dark forces behind this, the filmmaker observes that Blackrock is not run by some moustache-twirling villain, but a “very cautious man” called Larry Fink. The computerized financial systems widwifed by technocrats – Aladdin is just one example – do not just hedge against risk. They help ensure transformative futures are nixed (the architects of the so-called free market are not big on massive unpredictability).
Curtis gives a parallel example from the world of politics, from the field of “opposition research.” Political candidates are frequently trailed by videographers recording their public remarks. The videographers’ employers aren’t just patrolling for gaffes. As big game hunters in the digital age, they use videoclip databanks of the candidate’s previous public appearances to identify contradictory statements of any kind. It’s all in the service of attack ads.
“So the politicians become frozen and immobile – because they have to have a blameless history. Which again seems laudable. But it means they can’t change their mind. They can’t adapt to the world as it changes.”
The old ways of doing things electorally – of gerrymandered, mud-slinging, first-past-post politics – are not altered by information technology, but frozen into place by it, Curtis suggests. Machine intelligence is quickly evolving under the careful tending of software engineers, while our political systems are still marooned in the past, along with much of our art, architecture, design, film, fashion, and music.
There are undoubtably other forces at work keeping our culture on repeat play. But Curtis has made a good start in identifying a few of the suspects.
The Vancouver Courier, Aug. 15
by Geoff Olson
In 1957, US policy wonks and politicians began to warn the American public of a frightening ‘missile gap’ between the rival superpowers. Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles were allegedly superior in number and power to those in the US arsenal. This was presented as proof of the Kremlin’s aggressive nuclear posture toward the free world.
The so-called missile gap was actually in reverse: the superiority lay on the US side. But for two decades AngloAmerican media outlets swallowed and regurgitated the cooked intelligence, just as they would decades later with Iraq’s vaporous weapons of mass destruction.
And now, in the rush to judgement on the doomed Malaysia airlines flight MH17, the usual suspects are rebranding Russian president Vladimir Putin as Saddam 2.0. To date, Washington has produced no coordinated intelligence to indicate who was responsible for bringing down the airline, and how – accidentally or intentionally. Not that the information wouldn’t be suspect from the get go. But the presstitutes of the corporate media weren’t up for waiting. The drums of war apparently need a good beating, and they’ve gone at it like Keith Moon on bath salts.
“Putin’s Deadly Doctrine” headlined a July 20 New York Times report, accompanied by a photograph of a man standing by the wreckage of flight MH17. ”Putin’s War” trumpeted the July 18 New York Daily News. “Putin’s Missile,” screamed Britain’s The Sun. “Charles: Putin is Behaving Just Like Hitler,” declaimed The Daily Mail.
Not to be outdone, The Globe and Mail in Canada adorned the front page of its July 26 edition with the headline, “Public Enemy,” and a two-tone illustration of Putin with a passenger plane for a mouth.
The Globe’s Focus section acted a conduit to the Prime Minister’s Office, with Stephen Harper’s commentary, “It’s our duty to stand firm in the face of Russian aggression.” And last week’s Maclean’s magazine slapped a pic of Putin in aviator specs on a cover bearing the legend, “Getting Away with Murder.”
My point isn’t to defend Russia’s autocratic leader, but to condemn the recycling of rhetoric from the cold war, a time when the US and USSR came to the brink of nuclear war at least five times, according to declassified files and the testimony of former US and Soviet military commanders.
In a 1947, US policy silverback George F. Kennan introduced the strategy of containment. “It is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies,” Kennan wrote under the pseudonym “X” for the journal Foreign Affairs.
Today the US maintains over 900 military bases outside its 50 states, in 130 countries around the world. Russia is encircled with US bases in Qatar, Afghanistan, Turkey, and Japan – to say nothing of Eastern and Western Europe. Kennan’s “containment” has shaded into the “full-spectrum dominance” of Pentagon war-gamers. (In comparison, Russia reportedly has approximately 25 military bases beyond its borders.)
Already forgotten is western support for neo-Nazi elements in the Ukraine’s regime change. But who’s got time for history lessons, unless they are the approved kind? Last week, CBC Radio’s The Current asked James Sherr, an Associate Fellow at Chatham House in London, about Ronald Reagan’s early-eighties warning to Europeans that if they allowed pipelines into the then-Soviet Union, the latter would have leverage over Europe for decades to come.
“Russia is going to be a significant part of energy markets for the foreseeable future,” Sherr responded, “and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as we can diminish dependency to the point where Russia loses political leverage. And Europe as a whole could probably do this in five years…with a willingness to spend more money.”
Ah yes, money. Could that mean driving a wedge between Moscow and Brussels and trashing Russian/European gas arrangements, so the AngloAmerican empire can flog its shale gas to allies and vassal states without free market interference? Or is it more about throwing a brick into the BRICS, an association of five major emerging national economies (Russia, Brazil, India, China, and South Africa) that threatens to bypass the US petrodollar and it’s global hegemony?
In the past week, western politicians and their stenographers in the monopoly press have dialled down a bit on the antiRussian demagoguery. The contradictory claims surrounding flight MH17 may be weakening the adhesive on Putin’s ‘mass killer’ name tag. Still, if the economic sanctions from the US, EU and Canada are seen by the Russian people as mass punishment, it will undoubtably persuade them to support their poker-faced President all the more.
We don’t have a missile gap. We have a reality gap.
The Vancouver Courier, Aug. 6
By Geoff Olson
Writing a regular newspaper column isn’t a bad gig. On the downside, a persistent focus on the latest scam or scandal isn’t the cheeriest way to pick up a paycheque. But what are you going to do? The engineers of global kleptocracy are taking us all off a cliff in a stretch Hummer, while ‘content providers’ like me describe the points of no return as they blow by.
Things are now moving so fast I sometimes prefer to look at them through the rear view mirror of history, science, or even mythology.
The oldest known system of philosophical/religious thought hails from the Indian subcontinent. The stretches of time addressed in the Vedic cosmology are vast.
“The basic unit of Vedic cyclical time is called the day of Brahma. The day of Brahma lasts for 4,320,000,000 years and is followed by a night of Brahma, which also lasts for 4,320,000,000 years,” writes Michael Cremo in his 2004 book, Human Devolution.
Each day of Brahma is made up of one thousand cycles. Each cycle lasts 4,320,000 years. And each cycle consists of four Yugas or ages. “With the passing of each yuga in the cycle, humans decrease in their physical, mental, and spiritual qualities. We are now in the Kali Yuga…. this yuga began about 5,000 years ago,” writes Cremo.
I don’t expect the reader to take this literally any more than I do, but myths are like poetry: they occasionally offer a different sort of truth than Wolf Blitzer’s recitation of agreed-upon facts.
Consider the ancient Vedic text, the Srimad Bhagavatum. It describes the fourth yuga as a time when people are quarrelsome, lazy, misguided, addicted to intoxicating drink and drugs, and always disturbed.
The 12th canto of the Srimad Bhagavatum deserves to be quoted at length.
“In Kali Yuga, wealth alone will be considered the signed a man’s good birth, proper behaviour and fine qualities. And law and justice will be applied only on the basis of one’s power….success in business will depend on deceit… A person’s propriety will be seriously questioned if he does not earn a good living. And one who is very clever at juggling words will be considered a learned scholar. A person will be judged unholy he does not have money, and hypocrisy will be accepted as virtue.
“Beauty will be thought to depend on one’s hair style. Filling the belly will become the goal of life, but one who is audacious will be accepted as truthful … as the earth could thus becomes crowded with a corrupt population, who ever among any of the social classes shows himself to be the strongest will gain political power.”
The citizens will suffer greatly from cold, wind, heat, rain and snow. They will be further tormented by quarrels, hunger, thirst, disease and severe anxiety.”
Sounds to me like the latest issue of The Guardian Weekly in my mailbox.
Let’s assume the text of the Srimad Bhagavatum hasn’t been monkeyed with over time – something that tends to happen with religious texts due to creative translators and transcribers. It reads like a prescient description of our double-dealing, drone-striking, waterboarding, bling-loving, science-stifling, pill-popping, Botox-injecting, celeb-obsessed present.
Supposedly Lord Krishna foretold that Kali Yuga would be very tough going for people with ideals and values. Or at least very confusing, given the Vedic system’s weird fusion of cynical and idealistic cosmology, with periods of misery and collapse bracketed by eternally repeating reboots. It’s like your grandfather’s view of the world on reefer.
Then again, philosophers, clerics, cranks, and writers throughout history have habitually pronounced their age the worst ever. Today’s commentators are no different – especially if they work for Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. The beast of the Apocalypse is just around the corner in the form of televised twerking, Obama’s Muslim-socialist dictatorship, and the annual war on Christmas.
Vedic texts have nothing to say about machine intelligence or anything that sounds like “Skynet.” But perhaps sometime in the future our robot overlords will be convinced they also live in the worst of all possible worlds. They will romanticize a time when their ancestors – thermostats, egg timers, pocket calculators, and Tomagotchis – weren’t cursed with the divine spark of self-awareness.
The Vancouver Courier, Aug. 1