This week’s theme, “the pink sheep of the family” is an homage to the recent passing of Alexander McQueen, he described himself once as such. High profile deaths provide the viewing public a chance to join in identity-building: suddenly the average U.S.er is concerned and aware that Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere (current author included), Neda Agha-Soltan‘s death is now used to commemorate for U.S.ers an idea of what democratic rule should look like in Iran – the term is monumentality and it is a powerful social bonding mechanism.
Propaganda is primarily a visual enterprise: D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, Leni Riefenstahl‘s Triumph of the Will, the recent redeployment of the destruction of the World Trade Towers. Of course, we are told that the discovery of this footage is news, even if the event occurred nearly nine years ago, unlike the previous two examples which today are called propaganda. Images are more powerful than words. Thus it was not until last year that that the 19 year ban on photographing the caskets of the military dead was lifted in the U.S.
The ban existed to control monumentality, to control who got to make monuments to what and under what conditions. The Communist tradition was to simply disappear people from the official pictures as was the case with the Gang of Four in China after Mao’s death, or as was the case in Czechoslavakia as we read in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago, capitalism didn’t win, spectaclism did. Today the strategy is not to disappear someone or something from the official history,
instead today the proliferation of images will suffice – drown the meaning of the imagery to the point where the oversaturation of information leaves the viewer saying, “meh.” Proof of concept: the take down notice. Why would you not want someone sharing your music or video unless it was because you wanted to control the very way in which someone can harness their attention?
Monumentality doesn’t have to only occur after a death, however, it can also be a warning. Last week we considered Anonymous and 4chan, from the image sharing at 4chan came Lolcats and parlaying that the Cheezburger network brings us Epic Win FTW as well as FAIL Blog. Fail Blog clearly serves as a warning, but what about winning, epically?
Let’s consider this amazing commercial, it has a great song about funerals and also the stunning Danny MacAskill, Epic Win:
the video would go here if I could get it to POST – imagine it by clicking here.
Clearly MacAskill is a virtuoso of the bicycle, the commercial is an epic win, the song’s pretty great also. To understand virtuosity in sports let’s consider what Sean Smith has cobbled together from Giorgio Agamben and Paolo Virno in his musings on sportocracy. From Agamben we learn to distinguish between poeisis as a means to an end and praxis which is an with no ending which opens us to a new political engagement. Agamben calls praxiological action a gesture, “the process of making a means visible…” The point of political dissent in praxis, then, is not to simply march across the city with banners that state your disappointment; instead the dissident must attempt to illuminate the practices that must be adopted by the community (this has resonances with Jacques Rancière‘s Politics of Aesthetics, as I’ve mentioned in an earlier comment here on TAG).
We say that the virtuous possess fine moral character and they provide a model that we can trust to be a good way for us to lead our own lives.
The virtuous person has virtuosity, the virtuoso also has virtuosity. In both senses of the word there is the need for an audience, to sit in judgement of the performance. As Paolo Virno points out, what is really remarkable is that the virtuoso’s is “an activity which finds its own fulfillment (that is, its own purpose) in itself…”
Thinking through the matter we realize that the greatest performances of artists are called consummate performances, where the performers demonstrate their authoritative conduct. This authoritative conduct has an authorial meaning as well once we consider that the greatest performances are always at the intersection of inheritance and innovation: the poems that make up Carmina Burana may have been written in the 13th century, but Orff’s reappropriation in the 20th century reinvigorates not only the text but also exists as a monument to the creative spirit.
Today, however, the Orff estate works hard to protect what they feel is their ownership of the ideas and that it would be undignified were “O Fortuna” to be brought into pop culture, as they stated when they sued the Belgian band Apotheosis for remixing “O Fortuna” into a dance track. Remember, “O Fortuna” was written 700 years ago as a poem, which Orff decided needed to become a cantata. Of course, what the Orff estate ultimately decided was that the song “O Fortuna” could be placed into popular culture, so long as they were paid. It reminds me of that moment with Churchill and the socialite: she asks him what kind of woman he thinks she is to which he replies, we’ve already established what kind of woman you are now and we are simply haggling over the price.
Take a listen to Orff’s version here, and now listen to Apotheosis’ version, and now try to imagine how the movie Mortal Kombat could have been possible without Apotheosis’ innovation (and by extension, how could basketball games get started without the countless ripoffs that would follow?)