This piece is 1,800 words or about 5 printed pages long
Out of sheer boredom, Kafka notes in his diary, he washed his hands five times in a row. He lived in the age before MTV. Now the bored, the depressed, the tired, the blank, and the slightly ill can stare at an unending series of rapidly flashing, strange and arresting images, with people who are far more attractive than those who show up in one’s dreams. (Why bother to sleep?) Yesterday’s transgression is today’s decor: MTV is Un Chien Andalou at the speed of light, at the budget of a multinational corporation: a cabinet of curiosities the size of Xanadu.
Out of sheer boredom, and with clean hands, I turned on MTV twice in recent weeks, and both times was disappointed to find that the staccato dreamtime of the videos had been replaced by linear and conventional programs. The first was a comedy show, featuring an unremarkably pretty young woman as a lawyer. She walks into a conference room of suited yuppies, male and female, sitting at a long polished table, and immediately vomits at such length and so copiously that it covers the entire table. Unfazed, her colleagues proceed to pluck out pieces with their fingers which they identify as the remains of certain dishes from various elegant restaurants. (We watched no more that afternoon.)
A few nights later, I stared again, this time at their annual self- celebration, "The MTV Awards." Sex, dancing, or having a good time - once as intrinsic to rock & roll as amplification and the double entendre - seemed to have dropped out entirely. The main topic was mutability: lachrymose tributes to rap stars who had been murdered in the last year and unhappy humorous references to the fact that almost none of the stars present had been known a year ago, and would undoubtedly be forgotten by next year.
The secondary topic was excreta: a popular group of slinky women singers was introduced sitting on toilets, and the vomit jokes, all unmemorable, were relentless. I soon began to notice vomit everywhere; far more vomit on television, in movies or the latest novels, than one normally sees on the sidewalk.
The simpler explanation is that MTV, like all popular culture, is oppressed on two sides. Images are quickly depleted and must be ceaselessly replenished for a listless and sated, largely adolescent audience that demands more outrage. Extravagance, however, is severely constricted by the ecosystem of morality that governs American television: the small packs of the divinely-directed who prey on the legislators (who must camouflage themselves with forceful positions on uncontroversial issues in order to be re-elected) and the corporations (whose advertisements feed television and therefore must attract as many possible potential customers, repelling none).
Sex, on MTV, in this tension of attraction and repulsion, has essentially reached its limit of innuendo. To maintain its allure of the forbidden, of taboos being broken, and to keep the kids from changing the channel, the station must rely on equally fascinating, if less appealing, bodily functions - aspects of the body to which the moralists are oddly indifferent.
[A digression: In the U.S., moral issues,
particularly concerning the "corruption" of youth, are
inextricably entwined with physical health. The 19th century was
the era of apostles of strenuous exercise as a means for keeping
youth from bad thoughts and deeds. (Today, of course, the muscled
body is presumed to have more frequent contact with other, equally
muscled, bodies.) In my childhood in thfe 1950s, the main corrupter
of children was believed - thanks to a bestselling book called
Seduction of the Innocent - by Dr. Frederick Wertham - to be
comic books. This intersected with the polio epidemic to create a
myth that the disease was being spread by comics; there were mass
burnings around the country.
The more complicated explanation for this manifestation of the half-digested is that ever since youth detached itself from adult society, shortly after the Second World War, and became a separate but parallel culture, it has been a reliable indicator of the society at large. Its exaggerated responses and actions are not only canaries in our coal mines, but often extreme versions of what are or will soon be norms. Vomit has become an adolescent preoccupation, not only as entertainment, but as obsession: a prevailing psychological disorder among teenage girls in the technological countries. Bulimia is a response that is both violent and reasonable: In this society, what else can one do but throw up?
For the last twenty-five years, those who are not poor in the First World have been under siege by armies of production. In the arts alone, the record stores carry hundreds of thousands of CD’s; the video store on my corner has ten thousand films; my local television has seventy channels; the Directory of American Poets lists some seven thousand poets, all reputedly alive and publishing; there’s a web site that sells a million new books and another with four million out-of-print ones; the number of art galleries, theater and dance and music companies in any large city inspires one to stay home and contemplate the void.
The other day I wanted some information on a writer who died ten years ago: the library had two hundred full-length critical studies and thousands of articles; an Internet search listed 7,000 web sites where the writer’s name appeared. I decided to direct my curiosity elsewhere, and tried to remember someone who had been completely forgotten.
One result of this excess of all things is that if you are a fanatic of any given subject - let us say, poetry or movies - it is more than likely that your fellow enthusiast has not read the same books or seen the same films. You have nothing to talk about together. This lack of a shared knowledge or a common ground - not of a "tradition," but of a sense of the contemporary, of what is being produced right now, to advocate, modify or oppose - is unprecedented. It is perhaps the one thing, beyond the gadgets, that is genuinely new.
This means, in the arts, that it is nearly impossible to have any impact. The first edition of The Waste Land was only five hundred copies, but it transformed poetry in various languages, and was known, whether adulated or rejected, by all readers of modern poetry. This has become unimaginable: the last book to have an immediate international effect on literature at large, One Hundred Years of Solitude, occurred thirty years ago, just before this Age of Proliferation.
It also means, for the maker of art, that to produce implies a conscious decision not to consume, if only momentarily - to arrogantly proclaim one’s right or need to ceremoniously place one’s tiny little leaf in this rain forest. In the general population, the feeling of helplessness amidst the multiplication of humanity and its products has, among other things, led to the creation of group identities, which are not only assertions of community and self in the collapsing of traditional societal units, but also a way, however inadvertent, to keep one’s consumerism on a human scale. Religious affiliation, in its stricter forms, neatly parcels much of the world into acceptable and taboo.
Monolithic advocates of ethnic or sexual identities can happily concern themselves with the work of confederates and remain unashamedly oblivious of others. Intended - in their constructive aspects - to erase the worst forms of provincialism, group identities seek the refuge of a new provincialism in a cosmopolitanized world: a dream of an orderly and focused life, where one knows what one wants to discover and know.
The rest of us can only stuff ourselves and vomit and stuff ourselves again. This is not the banquet vomiting of the Romans, which was a kind of potlatch: a demonstration of one’s wealth or power through the greatest possible display of waste. This is a guilty vomiting, the vomiting of a bulimic, who may well be the emblem of the age.
In the psychological studies, the bulimia of teenage girls is generally seen as a self-destructive response to perceptions of inadequacy (I am stupid, ugly, fat); shame (my family is poor; I’ve been sexually abused); and failure (I am bad at school, making friends, meeting boys... ); as well as a strategy of avoidance (... therefore I won’t try). With a slight translation, these are the feelings of nearly everyone in the hyper-production of the West: I have consumed too many things; I can’t possibly keep up with all the things to consume; I’m always consuming the wrong thing; I’m too stupid or uninformed to know which thing to consume; I’ve consumed too many of the wrong things; there are too many things so I won’t consume any... The Western consumer lives in the guilt of excess, the dizziness of choices, the identification of self through one’s selections (in current spoken American, one way to say "I like spaghetti" is "I am a spaghetti person"), the doubts about one’s self as seen through one’s selections, the continual belief that one has made the wrong choice (brand of VCR, color of wall paint, sofa, lover or spouse) when there are so many others.
The allure of the mass media has always been the presentation of what we are not and would like to be: leading lives of wealth, adventure, and passion. The images of vomiting that appear as one nervously clicks the remote control are not only there as bizarre novelties to make us pause at a certain channel and its commercials. They are there because we wish we could clear a space, make some room, expunge all the half-digested matter in our brains, stop for a moment the interminable consumption and its attendant anxieties, know again the feeling of hunger and the feeling of satisfaction. We look at people throwing up because we wish we could throw it all up - including these images of people throwing up.
J A C K E T # 2 Contents page
This material is copyright © Eliot Weinberger
and Jacket magazine 1997