Monday, March 11, 2013

The Modern Anxiety, Buzludzha and the American Superhero

I will try and piggyback a little bit on what I thought was the most asked question, or at least what I felt was the most perplexing image or idea, during the night of the opening of my latest solo show “apotheosis”. The image is that of the Buzludzha monument and I have described the piece this way

“On a lone mountaintop in a Bulgarian national park sits one of the most perplexing and perhaps ironic monuments to late 20th century socialism. Built in the waning years of Eastern European socialism, when the writing on the walls was already running out of walls, this monument celebrated the revolutionary spirit in such a way as if the sheer spectacle would be able to carry through the intended ideology, that everything is just great the way it is. The hyperinflated ego of such a project constitutes the dramatization of what occurs naturally in every culture faced with its own impending doom. Instead of reflection and reassessment, we get bombastic displays of confidence in the existing system and wild proclamations of better tomorrows. It is only through the display of power, and not its actual manifestation, that the state can in such times “buy” time and prolong its existence. Today, only thirty years later, the monument is in ruins, yet the ideological underpinnings remain largely intact.” A little bit more information is needed here to fully grasp the implications of not just this image, but also that of the image of the Pruitt-Igoe demolition of 1972. Buzludza was built and ceremonially opened to the public (and here the public has to be thought of in terms of the old communist regime, since the public generally constituted only members of the party proper in most cases) in 1981. From Wikipedia we get a little blip about the purpose of the structure as such.

“The Buzludzha Monument on the peak was built by the Bulgarian communist regime to commemorate the events in 1891 when the socialists led by Dimitar Blagoev assembled secretly in the area to form an organised socialist movement. It was opened in 1981. No longer maintained by the Bulgarian government, it has fallen into disuse.”

What is interesting to note here is the reversal of the dates, the former mirroring the latter that in actuality constitutes the reversal of the rise of socialism in Bulgaria and Eastern Europe by providing us with a concrete timeframe when socialism came to a close. It is as if the reversal of a couple of numbers literally spelled out, or brought about the waning years of state socialism. My claim about the palpable feeling, the writing on the walls so to speak, that something is terribly wrong with the current system in 1980’s Eastern Europe was precisely what motivated the state to go ahead with the construction of the monument. The move must seem to us as madness today, but it is absolutely logical, and it finds its correlate in today’s hypercapitalist society (we are told to shop more, buy more entertainment, and so on, to produce demand for products and stave off the ultimate doom scenario when even the capitalist system comes to an end). The Bulgarian central committee, as was the case with all other Eastern European governments, understood that the time of deadlock is slowly approaching. The threshold of even more repression could not be crossed at this point as it would give rise to immediate revolution and the loosening of the stronghold on power would totally disintegrate the center and the whole system would collapse in a matter of weeks. The time of normalization, the 1970’s, and its pragmatic conservatism, ushered in a decade of unease. Goods and food were scarce, ecology devastated, depression, addiction and divorce rates on the rise. It is as if in order to buy time, the government decided to sidestep all political implications and dump a lot of energy into producing a monument that would function as a spectacular image that would show that everything is ok, that we do not need to run for the hills, and that above all, the state is firmly in control. The tragic irony is that the people in the central committee believed in the project no more than the workers that worked on it, or the “people” for whom this obscene monstrosity was built. By all accounts, the people at the top knew that their time was up before anybody on the ground suspected it. What we get in fact is a grandiose finale, the way that fireworks operate (they start slow and finish with a massive cacophony), of the tragicomedy that was Eastern European state socialism.

But what does all this have to do with us? The one thing we learn visually is that totalitarian regimes build and waste vast amounts of energy on public projects, monuments, etc , in order to satisfy some dictator’s ego, prop up the existing power structure and so on, and that democratic states on the contrary are organized so that the energy is all equally distributed based on the majority consensus, that the president and the government represent the will of the public and all kinds of other bullshit. We need to look no further than to the flamboyant neo-imperialist architecture of all the biggest government buildings across this country and most obviously in Washington DC, but also to the rather neo-stalinist statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. brought to us courtesy of the Chinese artists versed in such depictions in order to understand who is in charge here. The appropriation of the image of King by the state and by that virtue his ideology of non-violence, when we all know that America is one of the most violent countries internally (high murder rates, domestic violence, etc.) , but also one which wages war with impunity on the smallest of states, reveals itself as the true horror of the last stage of capitalism before it turns into an authoritarian nightmare. What is to follow is what we would call “capitalism with Asian values” a more dynamic, but more repressive form of capitalism that no longer relies on the democratic functioning of the state, but rather on the systematic permissiveness in areas of selling and buying products and entertainment, coupled with increasingly intrusive interventions into the functioning of individual lives and their relations with others.

The anxiety which precedes this systematic dismantling of the existing structure reveals itself precisely through the most permissive form, entertainment. The big Hollywood studios are busy producing super hero flicks as fast as the public can consume them. What these movies show however, no matter how good or bad the movies actually are, is what in Zizekian terms would be called a reality more real than itself. In them situations are dire, crime is rampant, corruption widespread, and who else can clean up but the superhero endowed with special powers? This is our Buzludzha monument. The reigning ideology is that no matter how bad things will get, things will get back to normal in the end, due to the self-organization of the system (the system produced figures like Batman, a millionaire bent on fighting evil precisely so that he can continue to make money so that he can fight more evil). Just let capitalism do what it does best and the rest will work itself out, everything is fine. We should obviously let corporations police themselves, because they have a vested interest in keeping the system that sustains them running.

The superhero, I argue, is the latest in mythological appropriation with a specific function to teach moral lessons. The hero is a presenter of the values of the state, he’s strong, just, omnipotent and omnipresent. He keeps the functioning of the state running at peak performance. But this is where the notion “more real than reality itself” comes in. What we are dealing with in actuality is a play of appearances. On the screen it appears that things are terribly wrong, and so they are in real life but compared with the violence on the screen they are meager, and that they can be set aright with a minor intervention by the hero (the state), which is an obvious mistake. The simplicity of the operation on screen is what makes it seem more real than this reality we find ourselves in. This I think is one of the great tragedies of the modern American revolutionary spirit. We are increasingly plunged into a conservative view of the world mediated through Hollywood cinema and “reality” television, while the real documentary images which should inform us of the horrors out there are kept away from the public eye in order to manufacture the consent needed to sustain the power structure. Of course we are given just the right amount of violence to keep us in the right amount of anxiety, mostly about murders committed by lone gunmen or some disenfranchised minorities, car crashes and the like, but too much violence, especially as perpetrated by the paternal state (increasingly however this type of violence is perpetrated by corporations) abroad and sometimes when the state is directly implicated with state terrorism, has the capability of sparking the correct negative reaction against the state itself.

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