Part 2 of a consideration of John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness (1994), and other things via it. The ideas in this essay were partly developed in conversation with George Daniel Lea and Elliot Chapman. It also features a little self-plagiarism.
There’s a documentary, originally aired on British television in 1999, called Pornography: A Secret History of Civilisation. After a couple of quite decent episodes, the series starts considering the then-present and the then-future. It’s stuffed with comment from ‘cultural critics’ and ‘social theorists’, who generalise about what ‘we’ are becoming – with ‘we’ supposedly standing for all humanity while actually implicitly referring to the middle classes in the developed world in the era of pre-general crisis neoliberalism. A little surprisingly even in 1999, the oppression of women, the objectification of female bodies, patriarchy, sexism, etc., are issues barely touched upon. (I am resolutely Sex Work positive, but there are ways of talking about the exploitative capitalist and patriarchal power relationships instantiated in the pornography business without stigmatising sex workers.) Alongside the theorists, there are words from entrepreneurs or capitalists, and yet the word or topic ‘capitalism’ is barely properly mentioned. It is silently present as the ‘civilisation’ of the title. Despite the profound thinkerizing about porn’s supposed journey into ‘the mainstream’ there is precious little time left for wondering who sets the agenda of the mainstream. Media ownership is not a topic, except for the times when a handful of porntrepreneurs (presented as pioneers and farseeing cultural trendsetters) get to spout their self-seeking spin. In the midst of much pontificating about the meaning of things from the perspective of the business owner or the consumer, there is hardly any attention paid to the perspective of the worker, of the (if you’ll pardon me) working stiffs getting screwed. Porn is, apparently, an industry with consumers but no producers. To the extent that producers do appear, the emphasis is on the employers rather than the employees. When sex workers appear, the emphasis is firmly on self-employment, on the sex worker as a petty bourgeois individualist. You might argue that this turned out to be prescient, what with the rise of OnlyFans and the sexual gig-economy. And yes, the series manages to notice that the internet will change things. (There is nothing about the inequalities of internet access, or access to media more generally, in any of the discussion of porn consumption and ‘cybersex’.) But the series has an entirely mistaken idea of the context in which such changes will play out. Its idea of the future is an artefact of its own moment. That by itself is okay. Every idea of the future is an artefact of its own moment. The interesting thing about ideas of the future is precisely what they tell us about our own moment.
All the hallmarks of the late-90s intellectual milieu are to be found in this text. The social and political cynicism masquerading as consumerist utopianism. Utopianism itself stripped of all noble and liberationist inflections and fused with a kind of gleeful dystopianism, reflecting the way that the post-Cold War intellectual landscape, with its End of History vibe, saw the future horrors and joys of unfettered capitalism as being equally inevitable, and then celebrated this with a knowingly sick grin of elitist torpor and overdosed irony. The countdown to a peaceful, pleasant apocalypse of banality and boredom that was supposedly hiding just around the millennium. The dyspeptic, misanthropic celebration of supposedly new and bleeding edge trends that are (perpetually) said to be just about to change/destroy social life irrevocably. The putative change to a post-industrial economy, the putative unravelling of society and the rise of the ubiquitous selfish individual – phenomena that, in as much as they were real, were not actually new.
Far from being a ‘secret history of civilisation’, this is a celebration of a status quo, couched in the fashionable idiocies of vulgarised late-90s po-mo posturing. It’s telling that several of the ‘social critics’ in the series make predictions about what will have come to pass 10 to 20 years in the future – now, roughly – all of which are resolutely wrong. (In the rejection of old ‘grand narratives’ we almost always find the substitution of new ones, constructed largely of rhetoric and wordplay.) Porn isn’t as mainstream as microwaves; it is still cordoned off by very, very old power structures in economics and society. Nor is it democratised by public ‘gonzo’ participation; it’s still a massive corporate business, intensely undemocratic, and still based on mass exploitation. Nor is it the main preoccupation of an entire planet-full of lonely, isolated, selfish, hedonistic individuals who live in the comfortable ruins of a society decimated by new media, finding ultimate consumer nirvana in disconnected casual masturbation. Bourgeois society is in general crisis in the second decade of the 21st century, yes, but it is recognisable as a crisis and not a new and permanent mode, and has little to do with the factors named in the documentary. To the extent that the series makes accurate predictions, they concern a narrow band of the relatively privileged, and the series is wrong about what caused them and what they mean. (This essay is not actually a critique of this documentary, but I will just say this: you can’t understand the commodification of fetish without understanding the fetishizing of commodities.) But it’s not surprising that they guessed wrong, given that their guesses about the future were just extrapolations of what they thought was going on in 1999, most of which was based on the rhetorical exaggeration of half-truths.
Last time, I talked about some of the ways in which John Carpenter’s 1994 movie In The Mouth of Madness seems to echo the concerns and rhetoric of the so-called ‘postmodern’ and/or ‘poststructuralist’ social/literary theorists who were fashionable in the Anglophone academy in the 90s. In this, the movie is – like so much of Carpenter’s work – intensely of its cultural moment. But I want to be clear about what I’m saying and what I’m not. I’m not saying Carpenter set out to draw on the work of theorists. I am saying Carpenter captured a flavour of a prevalent cultural mood. I am not saying that that cultural mood derives from the work of those theorists… though obviously it does to some extent, for instance in the attitude taken to an issue like pornography by social critics and cultural theorists studying and working in an era when those theorists are influential in the academy. But much of the work of theory and criticism which was fashionable in the Anglophone academy in the 90s was actually written in the preceding decades. It entered the English language academic conversation at a lag, the result of the time it takes for largely French language theory to be noticed, translated, and disseminated. It didn’t cause the mood; it was selected, taken up, discussed, and became influential, because it seemed to fit the mood, before then feeding its subsequent influence back into the mood. This loose mood of theorising was part of the social expression, in a specific geographic and socio-cultural region, of an underlying material process with roots in material factors. It is, ironically, giving this trend of theorising too much credit, relying too much on its own sets of claims and its own rewording of forms of philosophical idealism, to credit it with having created its own cultural mood. Knowledge is not merely constructed as a discourse of power, that power constituted by discourse upon discourse. On the contrary, the phenomenon we are talking about is ideology, a social expression of material relations of exploitation. Ideology may itself become, in a sense, a social force – when it is used by humans as a tool whereby they materially alter their society. It remains, even at this most dialectical and recursive moment, an expression of material factors, economic and political relations of power. The modulations of the ideology are surprisingly hypersensitive to the minutest evolutions of the material realities of such relations. To further rely on Marx, specifically (and a little puckishly) his dialectical investigation of the commodity: if there is an equivalence between the mood of pieces of cultural production like Pornography: A Secret History of Civilisation or In The Mouth of Madness and the mood of a fashion in social theory (itself a collection of culturally produced texts), there must be a third thing by which all these texts may be measured, an objective substance of this exchangeability.
But before we get to that, I want to pin down the shared mood that we’ve found in mid to late 90s cultural production. It consists of simultaneous feelings of collapse and eternal stasis, crisis and calm, disillusionment and cynical enlightenment, disappointment and ironic (yet laconic) exultation. It is the enjoyment of a torpid post-social condition which is both here and just about to arrive. It is the anticipation of an end that will be not an end of experience but an end of the meaning of experience. It is the idea that the value of signification will break down under the weight of ultra-signification, the whimper of semiotic social reality down into an incomprehensible – and thus atomising – bang of static and interference, of burgeoning and exploding polyvalence. It is the feeling that everything is ending without having the decency to actually stop. Without getting into the issue of whether Frederic Jameson was right to identify the condition of postmodernity as a cultural expression of a distinct phase of late capitalism, this mood is both real in the media-political landscape of the late 80s and 90s, and rooted in – and expressing – altered relations and realities within Western capitalist imperialism. The most particular underlying distal cause is, I believe, the decline of the system of stable global competition between those blocs of capital best represented by the United States of America and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union, contrary to myth, did not simply implode one day with no warning, and no underlying rhyme or reason. The dissolution of the USSR, and the subsequent decay and disassembly of the ‘Soviet bloc’ in the early 90s, was the culmination of a slow process of internal economic crisis. That particular method of social arrangement around surplus extraction and capital accumulation had reached its limits long before, and had spent some time slowly grinding itself to destruction like an engine running on fumes, desperately trying to feed itself without resorting to methods of violent imperial accumulation that it did not really have the wherewithal to pull off successfully or safely – not even in Afghanistan. The political collapse of 1989-92 and beyond was the result of the Red Queen no longer being able to keep up by ‘running on the spot’. If this all sounds familiar that is because in the fall of ‘communism’, Eastern state capitalism was merely showing to Western ‘free market’ capitalism, the image of its own future.
The toppling of one pillar of the world system of capital competition profoundly affected the other pillar. The cry went out: we have won. But the winning of the game also meant the end of the game, and thus the end of the certainties which the game provided. The competition between the USA and the USSR was also, in another way, a stable, cartel-like arrangement which benefited both parties. Competition between capitals within the same market entails risk but also slots into the maintenance and reproduction of the overall system of capitalism within which all the competing capitals exist. This was true in a macro sense of the system of global imperial competition colloquially called the ‘Cold War’. When one market competitor destroys and swallows another, that is a victory but it is also a challenge, in that it immediately presents the victor with the problem of an economic trajectory un-buttressed by the dynamic process and support-structure of competition. The switch of the world system to a so-called ‘unipolar’ model was analogous to the concentration and centralisation of capital within a national economy. Firms which corner entire sectors have new problems to deal with, aside from the more fundamental fact that the concentration and centralisation is a sign of an economy running out of sustainable rates of surplus value extraction. If the competition between capitals in one sector ends in the ruination and absorption of one by another, that is certainly a sign of the victory of the survivor, but it is also the sign of the narrowing of the scope for success of both, or any. This is, in a nutshell, the entire problem that neoliberalism was designed to ‘solve’, and the end of the support system of international global imperialism, which played the role of pump continually inflating the burst tyre of late capitalism, left neoliberalism – a limited economic and cultural strategy – trying to perform the task of resuscitation all my itself, trying to keep the tyre sufficiently fat so that the car didn’t careen off into chaos. The subsequent history of the 21st century – the American attempt at creating a new imperial pump known as the ‘War on Terror’, the Great Recession, and so on – only proved that neoliberalism was not up to the task alone.
But, of course, in the early 1990s, bourgeois thinkers were free to indulge in puerile triumphalism (as if they’re ever not!) about their wonderfully liberatory and moral ‘free market’ capitalist system. The most famous, the quintessential, expression of this was, of course, the Reaganite neo-conservative / neo-liberal (no real contradiction there) Francis Fukuyama, with his essay and subsequent book The End of History and the Last Man (a title which sums up the state of affairs at the conclusion of In The Mouth of Madness). The book is a bizarre and deeply unserious attempt to resurrect teleology from the supposed death of the ‘grand narratives’, this time in service of bourgeois liberal civilisation, combined with an eccentric bid to employ classical ethical concepts as part of its tautologous arguments.
The book itself needn’t trouble us. The point is that it too was, in its way, and despite its affectations and self-conception, part of the mood of theory described above – though Fukuyama is markedly inferior to the theorists previously mentioned. He is chasing the mood, putting it into words, rather than preceding it, being co-opted by it, and being crowbarred into a shape that fits it, as with Derrida, etc. Whereas they, for all the bourgeois faultlines in their conceptions which make this possible, are fundamentally more insightful than the mood, Fukuyama is just describing what it feels like to an establishment ideologue of the American empire, rhetorically rewording it as formulated bourgeois ideology.
In this mood, whether expressed as ‘theory’ by Fukuyama, or expressed by others via the works of pre-mood theorists, there is that ‘sense of an ending’ described above. The idea that history, culture, society etc were all grinding to a halting death/mutation in the chilly-yet-glorious dawn of ‘postmodern’ hyper-techno-consumerism. In many ways a travesty of the actual thought of the thinkers pulled into its service, it was the bugbear/fantasy of a layer of intellectuals who were given too many opportunities to pontificate on TV. But things like this are not picked up by, say, television documentary producers, unless they seem to be relevant, telling, and appealing.
We shall look at why this mood spread, and why intellectuals were thus pulled into service by mass cultural production, and why and how the mood spread as a kind of common sense in the arts, and why and how certain artists – most particularly for this essay John Carpenter in In the Mouth of Madness – turned it to interesting ends, next time.
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