Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Our Cicada Culture

After mosquitoes, chiggers, ticks, fleas, flies and other tiny disease-carrying insects that seem to exist solely to cause human misery and pain and which are otherwise expendable, the cicada is the next most useless creature in the animal kingdom. Ants and worms aerate the soil. Bees distribute pollen.

The cicada, however, does nothing. It doesn’t even transmit a disease. It’s also so ugly it resembles an alien life form. I’m surprised that no independent film producer has shot and released “The Attack of the Flesh-Eating Cicadas From Planet Xylophone.” It’s noisy. The mating call of the American cicada, as anyone who has ever heard one (or a forest full of cicadas) can testify, is a shrill, high-pitched, compressed clicking similar to the sound of a car’s gears being stripped. Or a DVD player spinning its wheels. Or a badly designed alarm clock. It can outshout the mating call of a tree frog.

I’d rather listen to a forest full of crickets. That can be deafening, too, but at least I know the crickets are not coming after me.

Basically, the cicada provides an “ecological” service to everyone and everything by just dying. It is basically a parasite. It doesn’t even feed on other parasites. Like the equally useless bagworm, It sucks on tree fluids, becomes an adult, reproduces, and dies.  It is only good for being mulched in soil after it dies, or being consumed by ants and other insects, and by squirrels, birds, and other animals when they’re desperate.

All the websites on the cicada say that it is a nutrient-rich delicacy. There are actually cicada recipes. No, thank you. I have a hard time picturing people chowing down on chocolate-covered ants and snails.

One can’t say about the cultural cicadas that make a lot of noise on Netflix that they’re “nutrient-rich.” These movies and TV series are not nutrient-rich – at least not for one’s souls – and are otherwise useless as esthetic and/or moral experiences. They are not produced for “uplift.” They do not provide what novelist Ayn Rand called “emotional fuel” for one to pursue one’s values. They are a hybrid cicada, and can burrow into one’s mind and soul to lay eggs. They are produced, consciously or unconsciously, to inculcate an enervating epistemological and metaphysical drone that life is pointless, that happiness is random and arbitrary, and that existence is just one long sentence of spiritually eviscerating numbness with no chance of relief or commutation.

In her essay, “Art and Cognition,” from The Romantic Manifesto, Rand writes about an artist’s choice of subject:

For instance, consider two statues of man: one as a Greek god, the other as a deformed medieval monstrosity. Both are metaphysical estimates of man; both are projections of the artist’s view of man’s nature; both are concretized representations of the philosophy of their respective cultures.

And, in her essay, “The Psycho-Epistemology of Art” in the same volume, she observed:

Is the universe intelligible to man, or unintelligible and unknowable? Can man find happiness on earth, or is he doomed to frustration and despair? Does man have the power of choice, the power to choose his goals and to achieve them, the power to direct the course of his life—or is he the helpless plaything of forces beyond his control, which determine his fate? Is man, by nature, to be valued as good, or to be despised as evil? These are metaphysical questions, but the answers to them determine the kind of ethics men will accept and practice; the answers are the link between metaphysics and ethics. And although metaphysics as such is not a normative science, the answers to this category of questions assume, in man’s mind, the function of metaphysical value-judgments, since they form the foundation of all of his moral values.

Finally, in that same essay, Rand clarifies the purpose of art, whether it is written, auditory, or visual:

Since man lives by reshaping his physical background to serve his purpose, since he must first define and then create his values—a rational man needs a concretized projection of these values, an image in whose likeness he will re-shape the world and himself. Art gives him that image; it gives him the experience of seeing the full, immediate, concrete reality of his distant goals.

Since a rational man’s ambition is unlimited, since his pursuit and achievement of values is a lifelong process—and the higher the values, the harder the struggle—he needs a moment, an hour or some period of time in which he can experience the sense of his completed task, the sense of living in a universe where his values have been successfully achieved. It is like a moment of rest, a moment to gain fuel to move farther. Art gives him that fuel; the pleasure of contemplating the objectified reality of one’s own sense of life is the pleasure of feeling what it would be like to live in one’s ideal world.

Our cicada culture offers drama that doesn’t let one rest, tells one that the achievement of values is irrelevant and perhaps even discriminatory against those who have no life-affirming values, and that the ideal world is one of chaos, anarchy, and medieval monsters. Cases in point:

House of Cards:
I have written about the American version of House of Cards (HOC) before, here, here, and here. Its star and co-producer, Kevin Spacey, is a committed Democrat, but in this series, being filmed now for its fourth season, all the villains are Democrats together with a handful of Republicans. A man is known by the company he keeps.

He is a Democrat and a friend of Bill Clinton, having met the former U.S. President before his presidency began. He described Clinton as "one of the shining lights" of the political process.[9] According to Federal Election Commission data, as of 2006, Spacey had contributed $42,000 to Democratic candidates and committees.[45] He additionally made a cameo appearance in the short film President Clinton: Final Days, a light-hearted political satire produced by the Clinton administration for the White House Correspondents Dinner.

In September 2007, Spacey met Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. Neither spoke to the press about their encounter, but hours later, Spacey visited the government-funded film studio Villa del Cine. In December 2007, he co-hosted the Nobel Peace Prize Concert with Uma Thurman.

Spacey is doing the Democratic Party no favors by portraying his party as a gang of liars, thieves and frauds. So one wonders what his ulterior purpose is in producing the series.  There are no heroes in this series, only a few patsies and pawns and other victims of the power-lusters, the politically and pragmatically ambitious, and the social climbers. In HOC, Spacey plays Frank Underwood, a ruthless Southern politician who rises to occupy the White House. He is a murderer and an adept manipulator of others’ lives and values.

There is no “uplift” or metaphysical reification of rational values in HOC. Many politicians and fans of the series have claimed that HOC’s dramatization of Washington politics is realistic and spot-on. Significantly, President Barack Obama is a fan of the series, as is former president Bill Clinton. No surprises there.

The “message” of HOC is that, for those who are not in the power game, who have no connections in Washington, D.C., and who wish to live their lives unimpeded and uncontrolled by government and conniving politicians, your life is hopeless, futile, and owned by the likes of Frank Underwood, his wife Claire, Doug Stamper, and other nightmarish creatures. Spare them the “fiction” that your life is your own. HOC goes out of its way to drill into one’s mind that one is merely a gnat to be crushed or manipulated by efficaciously evil men (and women).  

Orange is the New Black:

This is, basically, the feminist depiction of American society, which, according to the series, is nothing but a larger, minimum security prison, in which all men are contemptible liars and philanderers and exploiters. Or they’re wussies. In the series, most women are okay, a few are exemplars of the superiority of women, and a few not so much. Some are absolutely crazy. The series is billed as a “comedy drama.” I have not laughed once. I have previously reviewed the series here and here.

The series revolves around Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a woman in her thirties living in New York City, who is sentenced to 15 months in Litchfield Penitentiary, a minimum-security womens' federal prison (operated by the "Federal Department of Corrections", a fictionalized version of the Federal Bureau of Prisons) in upstate New York. Piper has been convicted of transporting a suitcase full of drug money for her then girlfriend Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), an international drug smuggler.

If you have a strong stomach and want to see a cast of some of the homeliest, unappealing, repulsive women ever to enter the acting field and then be assembled under one camera, and also get graphic lessons in lesbian and bisexual sex, then this is the series for you. There is even a token black/transgender/father/ex-firefighter hairdresser character. There is quite a lot of #BlackLivesMatter and #HispanicLivesMatter racial conflict for your delectation; whites get trounced, of course. There isn’t a single character in the series whose circumstance or fate should concern anyone with the least quantum of self-respect, or whose gaze is fixed upward, and not down on the sewer.

Believe it or not, the series is produced by Jenji Kohan, who looks like the man-hating dyke that would produce it, but who is actually married with children. Nevertheless, it is a man-hating series.

Mad Men:

This series, starring John Hamm as Don Draper, a Madison Avenue advertising executive, has reached its nadir. I watched a bit of Season 7, and yawned so much that tears began sting my eyes. I devoted some words to the series here. I had watched it infrequently up to the last episode I could tolerate, which wasn’t the series conclusion. Don Draper is a boring non-entity. Literally. He took his name from a soldier killed in Korea. Much of the story is about his hiding his stolen character, or doing penance for it. The series is also as much about the pseudo-fraudulent mechanics of advertising as it is about “sexism” and adultery and even, occasionally, about racism and homosexuality. All of the main characters attempt to escape from their predictable and boring lives by having affairs here, there, and everywhere, and, of course, by drinking gallons of high-octane liquor. This is a “slice of life” series.  I am done with it.

The Walking Dead:
This hit series about a zombie plague, The Walking Dead, ironically has interesting conflicts between its principal characters, and some interesting characters, as well. Overall, most of TWD’s dramatis personæ are more fascinating and addictive than are the “slice of life” ensembles of HOC and Orange is the New Black. The series is an extended if unpleasant study in emergency ethics, and will debut its sixth season in October. I am not a horror-film fan, not in the least. I have argued for decades that the director who made horror films “respectable” was Alfred Hitchcock, with The Birds, in which reality revolts against man in metaphysical chaos. This film could also be deemed the first environmentalist horror tale.

The series has grown an enthusiastic “cult” audience that surpasses even that of HOC or Orange is the New Black. This is basically because the various directors and cast members have developed characters whose actions and fates viewers actually care about. So, the series is not just about plague survivors lopping off zombie heads. It is also about their having to deal with survivors who have turned rogue killers whose specialty is killing other survivors. The basic survivor group, lead by Georgia ex-deputy sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), at first holes up on a farm (overrun by zombies), then in a maximum security prison (attacked by the residents of another survivor enclave), and encounter a “safe” haven, Terminus, whose residents turn out to be cannibals who serve up anyone luckless enough to think they’re “safe.” The series is not without its plot holes and lapses in consistency, but in a culture ruled by moral zombies on TV, in film, and in literature, this is, by my own standards, the “best” there is to watch.

A final note on the absence of “nutrition-rich” art in our culture, by Ayn Rand, in her essay, “Our Cultural Value Deprivation”:

The form in which man experiences the reality of his values is pleasure . . . . A chronic lack of pleasure, of any enjoyable, rewarding or stimulating experiences, produces a slow, gradual, day-by-day erosion of man’s emotional vitality, which he may ignore or repress, but which is recorded by the relentless computer of his subconscious mechanism that registers an ebbing flow, then a trickle, then a few last drops of fuel—until the day when his inner motor stops and he wonders desperately why he has no desire to go on, unable to find any definable cause of his hopeless, chronic sense of exhaustion.

There is no enthralling pleasure to be experienced in any of the works discussed here, except in the brief twinkle of light seen through a gray overcast sky or through an impenetrable and increasingly poisonous fog.

Rand noted in her essay, “Art and Cognition” in The Romantic Manifesto:

Potentially, motion pictures are a great art, but that potential has not as yet been actualized, except in single instances and random moments. An art that requires the synchronization of so many esthetic elements and so many different talents cannot develop in a period of philosophical-cultural disintegration such as the present. Its development requires the creative cooperation of men who are united, not necessarily by their formal philosophical convictions, but by their fundamental view of man, i.e., by their sense of life….

The movies are still in the position of a retarded child: born into a collapsing family, i.e., a deteriorating culture, an art that demanded Romanticism was left to struggle blindly in the midst of a value-desert. It produced a few rare, almost accidental sparks of true greatness, displaying its untouched potential, then was swallowed again in a growing tide of mediocrity.

I love movies. More and more, to watch them, however, I must go back in time to enjoy them, to a time when the cicadas did not rule the roost, as they do now. But were Rand alive today, doubtless she would conclude that films are not governed by a tide of mediocrity, but by a mob of medieval monsters. I don’t take these monsters for granted, as the norm, as the expected. Anyone who has read any of my fiction, will know that.

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