Shia Laboof and the Weltgeist of the Damned
Stalking the halls of his mansion, Howard Hughes, naked, mumbles words repetitively, and compulsively to himself. Like the obsessive compulsive, who repeats words or phrases over and over again to drown out unwanted thoughts, so do protesters chant their mantras again and again to ward off evil from taking possession of the Weltgeist. Mr. Shia Laboof, prowls the edges of his new art project, #HeWillNotDivideUs, like a manic and violent 21st century Howard Hughes, setting up a perimeter around the artificial zone he has created, in which the fragmented personalities of our schizoid Weltgeist are to gather and drown out the negative thought of division from the collective spirit of our times, lest anyone accidentally think it and it should come true.
Culture, it must be remembered, has a coordinating effect. If we were to remove all concepts from the world, and look at man, there would be nothing tying him to his fellows, for that is how it once was, before advanced mental machines allowed him to begin categorizing, and thinking particulars together under unifying concepts. It is only through the construction of a Concept of Culture that we can start to think about ourselves, as a group of broken off and disconnected beings, as a People or Civilization. This must happen on all levels of culture, the only difference being one of scale.
On a shorter timescale, and with a smaller number of people, a Microculture can been synthesized around a relatively shallow and unabstracted Concept of Culture, as is the case with a movement like the Altright, or with the endlessly branching identities of Scene culture or the Social Justice movement. A Concept of Culture, on this smaller scale, does not have to be so durable, but can rather be somewhat disposable, and is often regularly replaced as thought leaders attempt to tweak or overhaul the working parameters of their temporary coalitions. The Concept of Culture upon which Human Civilization, in general, rests, in contrast, is one that has been refined through the ages to a level of incredible abstraction. It is one of extreme depth, providing an endless well of strategies and techniques for the better coordination and harmonization of the whole of humanity. In between these two levels, there are, needless to say, an infinite number more, for they bleed into one another endlessly and contain one another, and overlap with one another in a way that defies the spatial logic we are forced to use to conceive of them as objects and consider their concrete relations.
Recently, it was announced, that Alec Baldwin would be given an entire episode of Saturday Night Live to do his Donald Trump Impersonation. Even among Anti-Trump commentators the reception of this news felt a bit tepid as I scrolled through their responses. This goes to the fundamental reason why Democrats lost, one that they have an intuition of, but that no one wants to admit. It is a ‘bad thought,’ of exactly the variety that Shia Laboof is attempting to drown out of the collective mind that is the Microculture he wishes to salvage. The Concept of Culture, around which the American left has for a long time now coordinated, has become obsolete in a way that casts serious doubt on whether it can reworked to function effectively in the face of current political realities.
There was a time, only recently, when conservative culture was, in a similar way, largely obsolete. It was a culture of televangelism, suburban soccer moms and polished commercial country anthems proclaiming superficial patriotic unity. The Democrats, on the other hand, had comedy, and art. Whether or not a politician appeared likeable to the public was largely a function of how sparing the impersonation of them was on the most recent episode of Saturday Night Live. The working class, the Republican constituency, completely abandoned any cultural production of its own, and fell entirely to the mercy of the corporatized media. Even the outlets designed specifically for their consumption were only parodies, reflections of the low opinion in which viewers were held by the cynical corporate owners who thought they could make easy money by milking a helpless and largely untapped demographic.
Left-leaning people in America, on the other hand, never gave up their cultural autonomy, and they continued to produce their own culture on an individual level, in the form of garage bands, art installations, theater pieces, zines etc. These sorts of endeavors were highly exclusionary of any seriously right wing politics. They were practices which were popularized in the 1960s by the counter-culture, as a set of instructions that would allow the culture to reproduce itself in new members. Through them talent could be cultivated, and potential thought leaders could be directed upwards to positions of cultural stewardship. As we have seen, these practices have been highly effective in establishing cultural monopoly, and even at times when Republicans were ascendant, the culture of the left rarely gave up its control, but instead was always there, working silently away in the background.
How suddenly everything has changed, as what was once a fairly durable Concept of Culture now appears, for the first time, to be seriously imperiled. For Hillary Clinton’s election campaign, the machine was switched on again, the engine began to hum the progressive mantra, the comedic cabals were gathered together once more on late night talk shows, everything seemed to be going according to plan, and the machine started to generate a protective enclave in which people could gather and coordinate. But as we all saw, the machine this time around was ineffectual in generating a cultural bubble durable enough to uphold the unity of the coalition, and to withstand the efforts of the Right to undermine its structural integrity.
It is on new media outlets, like Twitter, that the Right is currently dominating efforts to recruit and develop talent. As some graduated college and moved to L.A. to become comedy writers of Anti-Republican late night monologues, their more disillusioned peers moved to Twitter to troll them anonymously with forms of digital comedy and performance art that have quickly established themselves as the cutting edge of contemporary culture.
The apprehension of this transformation must be central to any attempt to understand the Trump phenomena. Trump won the Electoral College, Hillary won the popular vote, but the Right won the culture, and nothing could be more damaging to the Democratic left than this, for it challenges not only their political dominance, but their very ability to construct political dominance in the first place. After all, if our government reflects the will of the people, what better way to control it than by controlling how the people understand themselves as an overarching group?
Much has been made of Trump’s boorishness, perhaps this, more than anything else, is the sin Democrats are most offended by. Trump is, in their eyes, physically repulsive. Spray tanners, wigs, the size of his penis, hair grease are all common themes in portrayals of him. This appearance of Trump, as projected by the Progressive culture, is intended to say to all in-group members: “do you really want to follow that, is that what you really want to be?” It is defensive in its operation, it is meant to help retain weakly bonded members of the group, to influence the ability of would-be Trump supporters to conceptualize themselves in a self-respecting way. Unfortunately, however, the engine which produces all the Alec Baldwin impersonations and political cartoons of Trump as an orange boor strained and cracked under the difficulties of keeping up with the subversive New Media culture of the Right.
The mechanisms and architecture of culture that Progressives currently have in place are the product of a previous era, of old literacy, of television, newspapers, magazines, films, Broadway shows and other established forms of mass entertainment. Former Theater and English majors have long controlled the creative aspects of these enterprizes, and the working class of America has largely consumed them. Underway currently is the total upheaval of traditional literacy however, as the internet dramatically reroutes and shortens the piping to widespread cultural exposure of content creators and commentators. Dissidents have wisely begun seizing the opportunity to completely circumvent the established institutional pipelines and queues that would normally restrict their access to audiences, and have been using their new cultural machine to cut Progressives off at the pass in the race for cultural dominion.
Sorry state of affairs that this is, it is not difficult to figure out what #HeWillNotDivideUs is all about. A bad thought haunts the Progressive Left in 2017, it is the dawning realization that their cultural coalition is irrelevant which they feel pushing back against the edges of their enclave, and, for the first time, restricting its growth and reducing its sphere of influence. A thought as bad as this must be dealt with swiftly, it must be wiped out, exterminated, and exorcised in short order before it collapses the cultural self-confidence of the whole Progressive Left. What better way to combat the influence of bad thoughts than to set up an obsessive compulsive vigil, around the clock, to ward off the encroaching demons of irrelevancy? The bad thought rings in their ears as it is subconsciously articulated by the doubting darkness of their minds, and so they deliver the words, again and again and again, to dispel the danger which threatens to engulf them.