(Notes for an article that never got written.)
The other night, I went to see David Lynch’s Inland Empire, and was struck by how ‘old school’ his film-making has become. In a very real sense, this film is a return to the nonlinear nightmare structure of Eraserhead, only in colour, and much, much longer. After a certain amount of time the viewer must surrender any expectations of conventional plot, and accept a kind of funhouse logic of pure emotional terrorism. The revelatory moment came, for me, in a sequence where Laura Dern is advancing along a dimly lit corridor, and through cinematic sleight-of-hand she suddenly lunges toward the viewer, face distorted grotesquely (by computer animation). It’s a moment of shock, but at the same time, it’s a moment of recognition – it’s the same device, after all, as the rattling plastic skeleton lunging out of the darkness on a wire during a trip through a carnival’s Haunted House ride.
We’d go to the old Haunted House, or we’d go to a David Lynch film, in order to scare ourselves silly. A peculiarity of modern society, where we like to exercise the primordial frisson of fear simply because otherwise, it doesn’t get much play. There are no tigers or grizzly bears jumping out of the woods to chew on us – no packs of wolves – if we obey traffic laws, and if our police force has a handle on the problem of gang crime, we can generally expect to get through our day without having our lives threatened by anything more tangible than the cloud of toxic smog that hangs over our cities.
This modern form of life treads a thin line between boredom and danger. We allieviate boredom by testing ourselves – bungee jumping, white water kayaking, gambling, smoking cigarettes, doing drugs – by deliberately putting ourselves ‘in harm’s way’. We obsess over our ‘security’, only in order to be free to decide if and when we choose to face danger. We surround Nature’s chaotic fury, we bring it into the arena, we confront the bull of death with the fragility and skill of the matador. But we do not simply fling ourselves in front of a truck – there’s a fetishism about the balance of control and unpredictability in the risks we are willing to face. Consider the ‘normal, everyday’ act of getting aboard an airplane – the gamble that this flight will not plunge into the ground, that the risk will pay off with yet another adventure in a distant place.
This fetishism points to a peculiar quality of our civilization – it points to a profound distancing from and insulation against the reality of death. At the same time, a cursory excavation of the history of this society reveals that it has been, and still is, shaped by the fear of death. As our culture became more and more proficient at staving off the ‘normal’ dangers of life lived in close proximity to Nature, death, and more importantly, the fear of an untimely death, became part of the toolbox of society’s elites. Coercion has always played a major role in keeping our culture in its particular shape – a shape that seems to effortlessly transmit more and more power to a tiny elite, while managing to paralyse the vast majority of people in patterns of perpetual powerlessness.
All our ‘freedoms’ remain freedoms within an overall structure of imprisonment. If we do not submit to this structure – for example, by performing tasks alienated from ourselves, in exchange for money – we quickly come into contact with the death we thought we had somehow escaped. The homeless wander our streets as a sign – a means of enforcing conformity – their suffering is meant to keep us hard at work, fearful of joblessness, willing to sacrifice our morality, our very awareness, in order to keep our bellies full. A society such as ours can afford to have ‘democracy’ – this form of capitalist democracy which allows for a change of master every few years, and yet never allows for a change of the form of oppression under which we operate – it can afford to bestow ‘freedoms’ upon its citizens, without ever allowing them a glimpse of their actual condition. In essence we are no more free than the most abject cattle raised in pens for slaughter – our lightless pens.
Those who take on the identity of ‘artist’ in such a scenario must confront fear in all its aspects, if they expect to ever be effective in their role.
… He sat down on some elaborately twisted roots at the foot of a tree and took out the notebook he always carried with him. The day before, in a bar at Pedernales, he had written: ‘Recipe for dissolving the impression of hideousness made by a thing: Fix the attention upon the given object or situation so that the various elements, all familiar, will regroup themselves. Frightfulness is never more than an unfamiliar pattern.’
– Paul Bowles, in ‘Call at Corazon’, 1946
The greatest fear I have felt, in recent memory, was not caused by an immediate threat of physical harm, nor by some faceless governmental mechanism interfering with my personal freedom. It was caused simply by seeing someone I know – someone I know and do not understand – seeing her in a new context. And it struck me as odd, because I have devoted a lot of time and energy in recent years to writing about things which rightfully instill fear. I have challenged myself, over and over again, to say the things, to write the things that I most fear to say or write – for instance, to write in detail about my addiction to oil – and by extension, our addiction to oil, a substance that spells more insistently and more clearly day by day our future collective destruction. I have done this because of my conviction that, as an artist, as a creative writer, I cannot allow my perceptions, my sensitivity to the world, to be shut down by fear – fear of consquences, fear of condemnation, fear of loss of funding, fear of loss of employment, fear of the opinions of my peers. And by confronting these artistic fears again and again I could almost convince myself that I was able to transcend fear itself, that I was at last beginning to enjoy the clear light of day, an open space in the tangle of infernal contradictions – until this woman walked through my world like a deer, browsing almost aimlessly through some shady wood, and I was so afraid my throat closed up and I could barely speak to say a strangled ‘Hello.’
So, there is always going to be fear. Whether it is the fear of loss of autonomy, the fear of loss of self, the fear of loss of life … fear is an inescapeable ingredient of existence. After all, this is an imperfect universe, in that we are subject to time, we fade away into nothing, eventually – that’s a fear we’ve all got to face. There is always going to be an element of the unknown, even in these times of exploding vistas of human knowledge – such that someone can momentarily walk into my world and embody all that is unknown, and possibly unknowable. Thereby, haunting me – an intimate surrogate, perhaps, for the otherwise inhuman, vast void.
It isn’t the artist’s role to create fear or to attempt to prevent the creation of fear. The artist’s role is to become aware, and to transmit that awareness through his or her work. If an artist’s work instills fear in her audience, I hope it isn’t simply the aim of the author to terrorize the viewer, because that form of ‘play’ has been entirely eclipsed by the spreading stain, in our daily lives, of insecurity. The supposedly omniscient state – which shelters us in the shadow of its power and allows us to indulge in our lives of artistic exploration – turns out to be porous. It is unable to protect us from the very dangers it has given birth to: portable nuclear devices, toxins, biological weapons, box cutters, nail scissors, and most importantly, ideas inimicable to our accepted modes of being. Every individual is engaged in the absorption of this post-9/11 reality. The artist must take a vanguard position in this act of absorption, if the role of the artist is to have any meaning at all in the twenty-first century. Otherwise, the role of the artist becomes that of a kind of psychic interior decorator, a ‘domestic’ pursuit where the actual stakes of human existence are shut out by painted screens depicting pleasant – and entirely false – scenes and scenarios.
I saw this in despairingly sharp focus in the months immediately following 9/11, and indeed in the years following, when it seemed that the throat of the artistic community as a whole had closed up and choked off any meaningful comment on the state of the world. Fortunately, it was not a permanent condition – artists were certainly engaged with the newly unfolding conditions almost as soon as they occurred, and now it would seem the curators and gallery operators are feeling emboldened to allow these works to be seen.
III (Some earlier notes on fear, 2007)
Not too long ago I was smoking dope and watching a DVD, when I thought of something that made me grab my trusty notebook. It was a typical stoner thought: “Imagine a world where people have grown used to the existence of nuclear weapons.” The joke being, we don’t need to imagine such a world, since we already live in it.
But it’s still a thought worth unpacking a little. I wrote it down because I thought, for a minute, at how intensely affected people – at least some people – must have been by the invention and subsequent use of nuclear weapons. What could be more crazily terrifying than the presence of these absurd death machines hanging over humanity’s head like the Sword of Damocles? Various nations set about stockpiling these fucking things anyway, to the tune of tens of thousands of warheads. They mounted the bombs on missiles, they put them in jets , they hid them in submarines. It was a crazy game of Russian roulette that went on between the Soviets and the ‘free world’ for decades, and only ended when the arms race bankrupted Russia.
Since then, it’s as if nuclear weapons had disappeared. Nobody thinks about them much anymore, they’re actually kind of corny, like Soviet kitsch. As a matter of fact, those old foes, the USA and Russia, are still sitting on absurdly vast arsenals of these no-win weapons, all no doubt in the name of ‘security’. I guess we’re the most ‘secure’ people in the history of the world … secure in the knowledge that completely insane people like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have control of the world through this arsenal … we’ve forgotten about nuclear weapons because really, who wants to remember them?
Anyway, today we have more important things to fear, like ‘terrorists’. Unlike the Russian bomb, which merely hung over our heads morning noon and night but which was never actually dropped and detonated – unlike that threat, the threat of the terrorist is one which takes an actual toll upon the civilian population of the ‘free’ (ie. capitalist, high tech and rich) world. Like the Soviet missiles, terrorists can strike anywhere, any time, any place … but unlike the Soviet missiles, they do strike on occasion. And so, after a relatively brief period of elation when the Soviet threat was finally gone and we could all go dot-com crazy, we are all once again being crushed under the weight of a totalizing, all-pervasive fear and paranoia. Hooray!
People who call themselves artists need to ask: what is all this fear for? What possible purpose does it serve? Has it always been around, or is this something relatively new?
I say relatively because obviously, fear has always played a role in human existence. At one time we were vulnerable to many more dangers from nature than we are today: carnivorous hunters, lethal viruses and bacterial infections, poisonous plants and reptiles. It made sense to fear these things then, and still makes sense now. It makes perfect sense to be afraid of a hot burner on a stove, or to be cautious when crossing a busy intersection. However, the fears we are discussing here are not of that order. The fears we are discussing here are deliberately created by one group of people in order to influence the actions of another group. This particular sort of fear is a kind of non-lethal, diffuse weapon system. The actual sources of these fears – nuclear weapons, terrorists – are merely the nexuses or generators of what is most strategically important – the fear itself.
This needs to be shown to people. The general public needs to be made aware that a) the fear they feel is not a normal thing, nor need it be permanent, and b) they can do something to influence those who use this fear against them.
Fear serves to keep coercive social systems functioning. In the most repressive sort of coercive social system, like a prison, this is obvious – prisoners are kept in line with the fear of force, the fear of having privileges revoked, the fear of having one’s sentence extended, and so on.