Celebrity deaths & everything else: a quick 2016 study

December 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

“2016 was shit” is a sentiment that’s spreading across the web like a mournful chant, perhaps verging on an exercise of group healing. &, yes, it was a shit year; but not for the list of celebrity deaths which is the context in which it normally appears — Bowie, Rickman, Lee, Prince, Ali, Wilder, & Cohen are among the names you’ll come across. As a private phenomenon, I am personally saddened by many of these deaths, but as public spectacles I feel much is betrayed about western society: the way it conceives of death, celebrity, & its indifference to global inequality.

While some celebrities used their exposure to resolutely advocate for important causes — Carrie Fisher for mental illness & George Michael for gay rights, as the most recent “victims” of 2016 — they serve a rather more sinister function: to keep the general public quiescent & unengaged. Following what’s happening in hollywood [purposefully written in lowercase, as capitalisation is a mode of showing respect], allows for the illusion of keeping up to date with the world’s affairs & gives one something to talk about at cafes or parties.

There is a second function of celebrity that doesn’t appear in the hyperlinked Guardian article by George Monbiot which deserves attention. This is to assure the global cultural centre. Looking at that list of celebrity deaths more closely, you will see that not only are they all from North America or the UK, but they are also dominantly male, all cisgender, & all in the entertainment industry. They are embodiments of the values that the global cultural centre assigns. These are by no means universal values, but they are spreading by a process that is variously called globalisation, homogenisation, or cultural genocide/suicide. This is a pseudo-Darwinist approach of interpretation where the most profitable culture will survive — we see already that this culture will be anglophone, gendered with a bias towards men & traditional family models, be white or at the very least marketable to white audiences since they earn & consume the most, & it will propagate vacuous values.

When will we stand up to & against cultural homogenisation? When does profit stop being the measure of survival? Who will take part in a boycott of centrist media & say new york is not my centre, hollywood does not represent my principles? When will we take the project of basing culture on less destructive values seriously? 2017? &, most importantly, when will we respond to the deaths of those people which western culture makes out to be inevitable?*

2016 was shit. To begin with, we might look at some of the institutional failures. The effects of global warming, for example, which continues to be ignored by policy-makers even as the evidence piles up; the un climate change conference [December 2015, admittedly not quite 2016] did not make binding obligations on the 195 participating countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Also throughout the year, the european union was consistently losing on legitimacy what with its refugee deal with Turkey, the rise of right-wing leaders in western & central europe, & the actualisation of brexit. Nowhere have we seen immigration policies that comply with the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, but neither have we seen a sufficient response from activists. Furthermore, the eu has lost touch & influence with geopolitical landscapes in crucial zones, empowering other interventionist sides with fewer checks & balances. In the united states, the beginnings of a race war are no longer under the surface & the election of Donald Trump which will only aggravate this & other issues in the imperial super-power.**

But what truly marks 2016 as shit is the “inevitable” deaths of Others [notice the capital letter here]. Their deaths are treated as natural for the most part; their deaths don’t incite public grieving. The time has come to face this discrepancy in who dies in the eyes of the west [ironically, it is the immortalised celebrities] & who is tallied, for it is this that lets slip the truth of just how narrow the circle of “we” is. The west’s unhealthy ways of dealing & understanding death are a big part of the reason that conflict in Othered spaces can be ignored there. Today, fighting is carefully contained on territories that fall outside of the west’s circle of “we”. As the nature of war changes, civilian deaths are exponentially increasing in number & in order to truly oppose this, we must change our culture around death. The New Inquiry has just published a list of suggestions of how the new global left can respond to imperialism in Syria: “Let 2017 mark the transition toward solidarity with oppressed peoples, not oppressive states, and opposition to depravity without regard for the identity of the wicked”. I couldn’t agree more with the authors Davis, Chehayeb, & Mrie; to their recommendations, I want to add that we need to radically change the way we understand death in order to achieve solidarity with oppressed peoples. There is something terribly wrong if we feel outraged & experience an existential crisis at the death of one unknown person, but ambivalence at the deaths of one hundred thousand [or more].

What’s at stake goes well beyond the dead in Syria or its 4.8 refugees & 6.3 million internally displaced people. We must also address how the project of globalisation, homogenisation, or cultural genocide/suicide forcefully wipes out entire ways of being, cultures & subcultures alike [& therewith take away alternative systems of organization]. “With the triumph of this neo-Darwinian approach to history-making, apartheid under various guises will be restored as the new old norm. Its restoration will pave the way to new separatist impulses, the erection of more walls, the militarisation of more borders, deadly forms of policing, more asymmetrical wars, splitting alliances and countless internal divisions including in established democracies”, writes Achille Mbembe in last week’s important article The age of humanism is ending. There is no indication the new year will be better than the last. The problem is that we have let culture slip out of our influence & enter the closed neoliberal capitalist logic. We must regain control of it & reassign new values that don’t end in one type of authoritarianism or another. But even then, it might be too late. Happy new 2017!

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* The “we” here does not refer to our governments, which do take interest in foreign populations though not in the way I mean, but the “we” of popular culture consumers/sharers/creaters. It seems that we’re in the midst of making a new international leftist movement, & we have to protect it from cultural homogenisation

** I had previously published on personality-based rule in democracies; Trump would have been the perfect compliment to the study, but this foot-note nod to it will have to do

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The biopolitics of Germaine Greer

September 22, 2016 § Leave a comment

In Sex & Destiny, Germaine Greer develops a strong, cohesive thesis on the biopolitics of [over]population & the influence of women & the economy on it. A thousand-word summary post can do justice to neither book nor subject, but it will serve as a great springboard for the direction of the next few articles I intend to post. Following Greer, I want to look at human fertility & infertility as culturally diverse, rather than biological, without having a singly natural way of being practiced; I want to unpack how evolutionary competition is undemocratically practiced & monopolized by self-proclaimed democracies. Greer writes, “The blind conviction that we have to do something about other people’s reproductive behaviour, & that we may have to do it whether they like it or not, derives from the assumption that the world belongs to us, who have so expertly depleted its resources” (417). It is this self-righteousness that makes the West either feel it is their destiny to stay in control or that they have the right to control destiny, depending on one’s perspective. Not a bad starting point at all.

Here are just a few of the ways listed in the book that sterilisation was incited on the less diserables by wealthy stake-holders: “The British government continued to spend £3,000,000 a year for the establishment of sterilisation facilities in 325 district hospitals & 1000 Primary Health Centres” in India (361); “Between 1963 & 1965 American money paid not only for the sterilisation of 40,000 women in Colombia, but also for lipstick, artificial pearls & small money payments to the acceptors” (280). “From July 1933 to June 1947, 1,901 eugenic sterilisations were performed in North Carolina[…] Although only 27.5% of the state’s population is black, & even though the Negro [sic] hospital at Goldsboro took no part in the sterilisation programme, as many black men were sterilised, both by vasectomy & castration, as white” (277).* These are all varieties of eugenic practice, there is no doubt, against which Greer takes a moral — almost philosophical — stance:

We do not ask what the tiger is for; we must not ask Sir Julian Huxley’s question “What are people for?” We cannot contemplate the world’s poor & ask what use they are, as they joy & sorrow, multiply & die. (294)

Depicting overpopulation as a major problem denotes three modern conditions, Greer identifies. Firstly, that there is a pessimism in “developed” countries that the future — should anyone survive long enough to see it — will be even worse than the present (66). Secondly, the equation of life with production [participation in consumer economies] which means we do not place value on the lives of the elderly &, therefore, feel no moral obligation to look after them (376). Thirdly, it harks to the Western anti-child sentiment. This sentiment designates the role of mothers as marginal (381), then, which is not the case in societies that haven’t undergone that anti-child transition (19). Greer argues that the position of women is much better in such societies: “Woman in the extended Family is not an object but an agent; the Family’s prosperity & cohesiveness will be directly due to her[…] she has to develop & to play an increasingly important role [as she ages] for an increasing number of people, until infirmity deposes her” (244).

What is particularly impressive about Sex & Destiny is Greer’s refusal to view any woman as a victim of her culture; instead, she considers how our own culture informs our interpretation of the Other. For instance, acknowledging that “the cultural hegemony of Western technology [including medicine] is total” (30), Greer looks into non-Western methods of birth control with an open mind. Societies that use abortion & infanticide regularly are not immediately dismissed, rather looked on relatively. “The idea that young people should use abortion as a primary method of birth control causes the most extreme disgust, while the phenomenon of a very young woman struggling with powerful & potentially very dangerous medications [the birth control pill] leaves most people unmoved” (176). Another example is that much non-Western clothing for women is actually more convenient for the child-rearing & breast-feeding of motherhood [including the niqab, which many consider oppressive].

That populations continue to grow in “third world” countries means that the disincentives of child-bearing we’ve identified in Western thinking haven’t penetrated into all parts of the world [just yet?]. No matter the inhumane & illegal means dominant states might take to control the populations of “undeveloped” countries, numbers will not fall to desired levels until those disincentives are culturally transposed (375); “once they accept a materialist view of their situation, once they see their wretched selves with the eyes of their oppressors, they are finished” (414). That is why the capitalist system Greer equates to creating those disincentives needs global dominance — for as long as there are other population-booming traditions, both economic & family traditions, these will threaten the hegemony of capitalist democracies (43, 291, 326). Militarisation, authoritarianism, and lack of transparency in the foreign policies of today’s “democracies” are the logical progression of attempts to preserve their supremacy (382).

A criticism of today’s superpowers must take into consideration the international politics of human fertility. I don’t know of a text that describes this situation more eloquently than Greer’s. However, there are crucial points that aren’t broached in the book, most pressingly I believe the role of wars in global population control.*** Sex & Destiny will nevertheless continue to provoke meditations on the subject & inspire methodologies of future studies. There is important work to be done.

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* For further details regarding American eugenics, see this New Scientist article.

** Civilian deaths are exponentially increasing, which suggests that modern warfare might have something more to do with population control than we usually admit to. Conflict is usually contained on territories of the undesirable population growth, if not outright waged on those territories with that intent. Furthermore, there is a never-before-seen complicity in citizens of the dominant oppressors who are, by all accounts, insufficiently moved by violence abroad; nowhere have we seen immigration policies that comply with the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. There are also economic factors, of course — the profits of war & the arms industry for the West — which are meant to reinstate the superiority of the West &, therefore, its right to dominate.

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