June 21, 2005

Kraftwerk Remake

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In Hollywood it is the year of the remake. The number of old movies and television shows being dusted off is staggering. A short run down includes The Dukes of Hazard, Dawn of the Dead, War of the Worlds, The Love Bug, Bewitched, House of Wax, The Amityville Horror, The Longest Yard, etc. The list goes on and on. Even George Lucas’s Star Wars prequel series is more like a remake tribute of the originals, filled as each is with inside jokes, than anything else. It is not clear what to make of all these remakes. Are they the result of an older generation desperately trying to market to a younger generation of moviegoers? Or, more probably, are these productions the result of the post-punk generation finally getting decision-making power. There has always been something frighteningly nostalgic about this generation. It may very well be that now that they are making marketing decisions it turns out they have absolutely nothing to say, are totally bankrupt, and sentimental remakes are the best effort they can muster. Whatever the reasons, these are often moments of cultural re-evaluation. A remake of a movie is not the same movie it once was. The times have changed, attitudes have changed, etc. Last years remake of The Stepford Wives, was, for example, notable as a humorous take on what was a horror movie. It is not clear what the latest crop of nostalgia is about, or even if it is possible to boil it down to any single coherent phenomenon. Suffice it to say that the rearward recourse to the comfort zone of past favorites is by no means limited to the movies. There are ample examples in all the other familiar sectors, not least of all music. But what happens when a group like Kraftwerk goes on tour? When the band first came out in 1971, the robotic music and performance was meant as a criticism of a technological world in which art would only become more and more automated, where the artist and musician was totally rendered obsolete. Over thirty years later the performance takes on a markedly different meaning. The hybrid man-machine is no longer considered an impending threat the way it was then. As the Stepford Wives remake illustrates, loss of personal identity to the domesticated machine has once again become an ideal in a way it has not been for some time. Without a healthy fear of robotic anti-consciousness, Kraftwerk’s message no longer has the same critical edge it had at the onset. In a gadget crazy era where robot pets are the craze in Tokyo, Kraftwerk comes off as pure Futurism, a la Marinetti. The stage-show background projections traced those tendencies as they have manifested themselves in various ways. It is worthwhile to note that as an Italian art movement much of what Futurism found sleek is classically derived. The bicyclists in the "Tour de France" video are definitely a marriage of the beautiful harmony of man and machine; the hard angularity of the model’s cheekbones in the video accompaniment to "The Model" might be a freak of nature but it is that freak of nature that the camera likes best; the neon bulb for "Neon Lights" derives much of its attractiveness from the acid definition of its edges; etc. In short, Futurism is traced right through our corporate esthetic. The entire stage show, in fact, with its giant video projections and laptop computers has the cultish feel of the business convention presentation. Remarkably, in an environment of rearward looking, Kraftwork never retreates completely to nostalgia and repeatedly manages to find a critical position by which it can maintain its relevance.

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June 13, 2005

“How To Kill Americans”

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Describing the arrest in northern California of a suspected father and son terrorist sleeper cell, the local Los Angeles NBC affiliate reported that Hamid Hayat had been “trained in how to kill Americans.” At the least it was a strange choice of words, the kind of phrase one might expect law enforcement types to spout, but not an objective reporter. The charges are serious. Hayat, is suspected of having connections with Al Qaeda and may, if the allegations are true, have actually trained as a terrorist. Never mind the, hopefully unintended, implication of the phrase “trained in how to kill Americans” – don’t American’s die like everyone else, or is the connotation that Americans must be killed in some special sort of way akin to zombies who must be shot in the head? Never mind that the arrests came one day before Dubya and his ilk launched their PR campaign to try and save their Patriot Act, a.k.a. their bid to revoke the United States Constitution. It may not seem like much, may seem frivolous, in fact, but the threshold of yet another form of cultural regression was crossed. War propaganda commonly demonizes the enemy. The difference is in our attitude to the enemy. In a surprisingly lucid radio interview in the mid-70s, Rocky Erickson, the lead singer of the Texas psychedelic garage band The 13th Floor Elevators who was institutionalized, some say, to avoid the draft and then put out some amazing solo material afterwards, discussed the changes in his lifetime about our attitude to the monster. Erickson, whose songs are steeped in horror imagery, pointed out that when he was a boy in the 50s the demon came from outside; they had a form and it wasn’t ours. By contrast the monster of the 60s and 70s became less and less easily distinguishable from the victim. In other words, the monster became psychological. As Erickson put it: “If you’ve noticed when you were a kid you used to go to horror movies. Every Friday and Saturday they would have about three or four horror movies, When Worlds Collide (1951), or, Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), and then films went to the horror of Dracula and things like that. They became really good but they began prying on your inner fears.” The more overt implication of terrorists “trained to kill Americans” is that they are not themselves American; they must somehow learn to understand us in order to kill us. It is no longer the monster of our “inner-fears”, a monster who makes us question our self-doubt, the flaws of our ways, and our repressed motives, but the much cruder monster of the 50s that is re-invoked: the monster as a suspicious stranger, the outsider with unchristian, evil, maybe even otherworldly, ways (at a time of unprecedented remakes, note Steven Speilberg's timely move to revisit the classic "us" verses "them" epicWar of the Worlds). The original failure of the 50s monster, and the need for its subsequent cultural reassessment, might, however, be nowhere better expressed than in the verdict in Michael Jackson’s child molestation case. It should not come as a great surprise that the pop icon was acquitted on all charges. The jury apparently identified with Jackson and chose to reject those who made the case against him. Yet another music icon made one of the clearest cases against the total xenophobia of the 50s version of the demon in his movie / theme album. Frank Zappa’s Uncle Meat is all about our relationship to the monster. What interested Zappa was our empathic relationship to the villain. In one way or another we were, he proposes, all cut-down in some way, made to feel imperfect by parents or other authority figures. It is only natural, then, that we should sympathize with the shortfalls of the monster. The monster, so it follows, is only the mirror of our own imperfect selves.

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June 08, 2005

Cult of the Corporate Megachurch

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To say that the Christian Fundamentalists interpretation of the scriptures has become amazingly idiosyncratic and cryptic only begins to convey the unchecked goings on behind the closed doors of today’s Megachurches. The authors of Power Religion offer, for the most part, a predictable litany of concerns over the newfangled direction these updated institutions have embarked on. Charges that the church has strayed from its righteous path are nothing new. There is simply no satisfying the pious for whom religious tenets can conceivably never be observed too strictly. What makes the book’s brand of criticism particularly notable, however, is its striking resemblance to the kinds of charges waged against the Christian Church in the 50s and 60s by, of all people, America’s #1 Satanist, Anton Szandor LaVey. LaVey’s argument was simple: Christianity criminalized our most basic needs and desires and was founded against our better nature. The tone of The Satanic Bible is often sheer exasperation. LaVey could not believe the hypocrisy of a church that said one thing and baldly did the opposite. His point was that the only religion to openly recognize and embrace the power and strength of the human character was Satanism. LaVey did not begrudge the Christian Church's need to change to fit the reality of the modern world. He only thought it was deceitful of the church to continue to call itself Christian. “But, if the world has changed so much,” LaVey wrote, “why continue to grasp at the threads of a dying religion? If many religions are denying their own scriptures because they are out of date, and are preaching the philosophies of Satanism, why not call it by its rightful name – Satanism? Certainly it would be far less hypocritical.” Granted LaVey’s ridicule was aimed at a church that was at that time becoming more openly liberal. The convoluted morality of the Evangelical Megachurch is clearly a bird of a different color. LaVey would, no doubt, have exposed it as Satanic, but for slightly different reasons than he did the church of the 50s. As Jeff Sharlet points out in a recent Harper’s article the exurban Megachurch is the unlikely spawn of forces that were once considered contradictory: free-market economics and quasi-totalitarian, ultra-conservative-style organization. Colorado Springs Pastor Ted calls it “Christian capitalism”. Rodney Stark provided the economic model, a “new brand” of religion supposedly supercharged by market competition. South Korean Pastor Paul Cho architected the cell-group structure to maximize top-to-bottom micro-control. Many other influences are equally at work, but the major innovation Sharlet is concerned with is the merger of economic and faith-based goals into a mega corporate church. The combination of institutional cultures has produced, according to Sharlet, a strange beast, increasingly preoccupied with the aggressive language of cruelty and authoritarism. Sharlet concedes the church has always resorted to the rhetoric of “spiritual war” and world dominance. Struck by the banal exhortation to violence in a Pastor Ted wedding sermon, he concludes, the corporate / evangelical conglomeration takes the rhetoric of cruelty and fear to outlandishly absurd levels. Pastor Ted, Sharlet writes, exhorted the newlyweds by saying, “The Christian home is to be in a constant state of war, massive warfare!”

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June 02, 2005

Neocon-Romantics

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Trying to make sense of the messianic ardor of the Neocons is a mistake. If anything, Christo-fascism is willfully anti-rationalist. One of the major features that differentiates the Left from the Right in our country is that the Left is rooted in the Enlightenment. The enlightened mind is characterized by the belief that science and rational thought lead to sound solutions. What makes it so difficult to make sense of the Religious Right is that these are precisely the principals that they most fervently oppose. The master theologian of their movement was R.J. Rushdoony whose book The Institutes of Biblical Law provided them the basis of their coda. The argument is simple: our humanist laws must be replaced by the harsh Biblical law of yore. Reconstructionist Bushevics quite literally and candidly preach “fire and brimstone”. Their goal, which they freely offer up at the slightest request, is the total repeal of Democratic liberties. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) was more than happy to make his opinion clear to a reporter: “It all comes from, I would argue, this right to privacy that doesn’t exist in my opinion in the United States Constitution.” It is fruitless to attempt to rationalize such a sentiment as that of a representative guardian of our Democracy. There is simply no honest scenario in which such a belief system makes sense to anyone who is freedom loving. Prominent Reconstructionist P. Andrew Sandlin gives their anti-Enlightenment and Democracy-hating agenda historical context: “Let us never forget that there is a glorious Christian culture in the past – our past. This is medieval Europe. This is Reformation Europe.” In other words the Feudal, theocratic tyranny this country was founded against is the past that Neocons idealize. There is an uncomfortable parallel,albeit due to a misunderstanding on the part of Christo-fascists, with the 19th-century Romantics. They too, it is true, shared a suspicion of the rationalism of Enlightenment thinking and were attracted to the Gothic aesthetic of the Middle Ages in which they believed they might reclaim a lost sense of spirituality, mysticism and heroic romance. That is, however, as far as the parallel goes. These artists and writers were particularly interested in championing subjective experience over ideas of objective reality. The Reconstructionist nostalgia for the fear-mongering that characterized the discipline and control exerted by Christianity over people in the Middle Ages would have been abhorrent to them. By contrast, the Romantic aim was decidedly poetic.

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