The depth of general resentment may be measured by most people’s willing identification with the violent centrality of popular culture. Mel Gibson‘s self-directed performance in Braveheart is a particularly egregious example; combining any figures of mastery and martyrdom he could get his hands on, from Moses and Napoleon to Jesus, Gibson was rewarded with an Oscar for offering us an invitation to hero-worship.
Still more crudely sacrificial figures abound, faceless or individualized figures of evil whose sole raison-d’être is to justify their undoing. Within the category of exploitation films targeting youth, Blacks, women, etc., all members of the “dominant” (adult, white, male…) group are obligatorily portrayed as monsters. The other day I tried to watch Trust (Hal Hartley, 1991), a well-regarded film about the odd couple formed by a pregnant high-school dropout and a nerd-genius young man. In the 30 minutes I was able to stand, unfeeling father #1 dies of heart attack after becoming enraged at learning of pregnancy; unfeeling football-playing boyfriend–an apprentice adult–refuses to marry pregnant sweetheart because it would upset college plans; unfeeling mother coldly accuses daughter of murder at father’s funeral and throws her out of house; unfeeling supervisor forces sensitive young man to repair shoddy electronic equipment–after which sensitive young man sticks supervisor’s head in a vise and walks off the job; sadistic father #2 brutalizes son after making him clean the already-clean bathroom several times; crazy woman on bench tells girl of the horrible boredom of her marriage; repulsive storekeeper tries to take sexual advantage of (underage) girl when she tries to buy beer. This material is as steeped in resentment as anything the Nazis or the Weather Underground could conceive; it is praised for its sensitivity to a female character who is shown slapping–and indirectly killing–one man (her father who slapped her first) and sticking a lighted cigarette into the eye of another (the storekeeper who was forcing her to undress).
Every artwork incarnates an anthropology. The more it is founded on the unproblematic discharge of resentment, the more sacrificial the anthropology. Thus we should be able to judge a society by the sacrificiality of its art. The Frankfurt school condemned modern bourgeois society for attempting to distract the people from their quest for socialist utopia with the resentful satisfactions of mass art; but Adorno u.s.w. never disentangle ethical truth from esthetic distinction. Our own critique makes no reference to the suspiciously snobbish notion of esthetic sensibility. The only sensibility that I have referred to here is ethical. An artwork that flatters our resentment raises rather than lowers the level of sacrificial violence in its vicinity.
Today’s critique of violence in the media, focused on content without concern for narrative structure, expresses in its mindless way the fundamental relationship between culture and violence: because violence is contagious, it is spread by its very presence. The mindlessness is itself the product of the violence of our dominant popular culture; once the latter becomes a barely disguised expression of resentment, we can forget about the niceties of narrative structure. No doubt this kind of critique overlooks the culture’s most egregious moral lapses, the twin evils of hero-worship and demonization in Braveheart and the like, which inhere not in violence per se but in the way its portrayal is justified. But we don’t notice these lapses because we’re not really following the story, just being borne along by the figures of violence. In condemning a work as pornographic, one doesn’t care how the sex acts fit into the plot.
The task of the postmodern era is to create a post-sacrificial, post-charismatic culture. The other day I attended an expository talk on nature writing as a contemporary form of spirituality–something Markus Müller astutely called Rousseau without resentment. Following Thoreau, who created a uniquely American form of resentment, the return to a sense of place is a way of spreading ourselves out, deferring our concentration on a single center. The ecological model, in contrast with the central model of the consumer society of which it is a growing part, tells us to substitute natural for man-made differentiation. From connoisseurs of wine and clothes, we should become connoisseurs of rocks and flowers; for sale at sustainable prices, they nicely express our disdain for the marketplace. The talk concluded with a poem by a woman who tells of stopping to listen to some mockingbirds–but like Robert Frost, who can’t watch the woods fill up with snow without pointing out that his neighbor is too bourgeois to do so, she noted at the outset that by listening to the birds, she was neglecting some other obligation. I imagined myself in her place, arriving a half-hour late to class because mockingbirds, unlike students, are figures of the Spirit.
Now that environmental writing is becoming big business, one wonders when the community of nature-worshipers will reach the critical mass at which the initiate’s beatific sense of superiority to others (the New Age definition of spirituality) dissolves in the agon of internal competition. At that point, one hopes, the postmodern flight from anthropology, of which this is but one of many examples, will be revealed as just one more of the deferrals inherent in anthropology. Knowledge cannot be sidestepped indefinitely; lucidity always wins out in the end.
I suppose we should prefer desert landscapes to the mayhem on the TV screen, but the most powerful cultural medium of our time is neither of these, but the one we are currently sharing. All process and no substance, no medium to be the message, the Internet eliminates authority from emission and stasis from reception. It is no accident that originary thinking has found an audience on the Net. No more masterpieces was the cry of the modernist avant-garde, but the structure of the art-show centralizes whatever is shown there; showing “non-masterpiece” art is only a yet more scandalous variety of charismatic communication. The Internet, on the other hand, is anti-charismatic; no heroes on the WWW. For what is certainly the first time in history, the most powerful ideas can come to maturity without arousing a distorting attraction to the sacrificial center. Which is only to say that, for the first time, thinking about the origin of this center is truly possible.