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Wednesday, May 07, 2003
before they put you on the torture table
Just had a bit of a Greil Marcus flash: in a great and kind of moving article in Salon about the first theatrical production in post-war Baghdad, one of the actors, asked to interpret a part of the play, is quoted as follows:

"The moon is the symbol of death and the Dictator was trying his best to seize the symbol for himself. But he could not succeed. He could only succeed in leaving his fingerprints on our memory."

Now, the question has to be asked: is this a deliberate Elvis Costello reference or just a coincidence? From "Green Shirt" (Armed Forces, 1979):

Never said I was a stool pigeon, I never said I was a diplomat
Everybody is under suspicion but you don't want to hear about that.

[...]Better send the begging letter to the big investigation
Who put these fingerprints on my imagination?

It's not as far-fetched as it might otherwise be, since the actor had previously said he was a Nirvana fan. But it's almost too perfect to come up in regular conversation: the song, which starts off as a critique of TV news, turns into a portrayal of a 1984-ish police state (albeit one far less nuanced than Leonard Cohen's "the rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor," etc.) not too far removed from the conditions as described in Iraq under Sadaam. Well, I guess there's no way to peg the intention, although it was a little weird to read after listening to "Green Shirt" on the train this morning. But it does bring up two interesting points.

First is the fact that in recent months Costello has been doing impassioned versions of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding" at every opportunity, presumably as an anti-war statement. But as the actor's comment points out, if you're going to write anti-fascist songs, you'd think those would be just as appropriate when talking about Iraq. I can't dictate what Elvis' position should have been (and, truthfully, he never made it explicit) but I do know that both of these songs come from the same album and they both seem like valid points to make at this moment. I mean, OK, you could say (were you inclined to this kind of overstatement) that American's recent foreign policy has been leaning toward the fascist, so a criticism of that foreign policy could be taken as anti-fascist in and of itself, but clearly the Iraqi regime is far worse and far more deserving of the critique. (The beginning of "Green Shirt" might be better targeted at the US, though: "There's a smart young woman on a light blue screen who comes into my house every night / she takes all the red, yellow, orange and green and she turns them into black and white.") So this confusion, and this conscious choice to focus on the anti-war song, indicates the occasional emptiness of progressives' "anti" statements: OK, you're anti-racism, or anti-fascism, but what are you for? More importantly, what would you do to get rid of racism or fascism (or war or homophobia or poverty or...)? Clearly, in the case of Iraq, many people who would probably have identified themselves as anti-fascist (had that term not gone out of vogue) were against one particular method of eliminating it, and while I'm not saying that's an inaccurate position, it is a somewhat untenable one. This issue is, as they say, thorny.

The other thing is the way it reflects upon art under censorship. This quote highlights the way that art is eager to make connections (the play itself references the Beatles and an Iraqi filmmaker, among others) and the way that censored art seems to be primarily characterized by its lack of connectivity. An oppressive regime both restricts what outside art can come into a society and what kind of art that society can produce, resulting in art that often seems weirdly self-contained. Soviet socialist realist art, for instance, all seems similar due in no small part to its reliance upon iconography, and Japanese imperial dramas (for instance) are beautiful but not really moving or intellectually resonant, at least to me, presumably due to its need to be apolitical and not offend the rulers. (Ditto for a lot of offically-sanctioned Christian art.) Those pieces of art-under-repression that seem resonant to us in the outside world (and, presumably, to those poised to receive the signals under the eye of the regime) are meaningful only in reference to a single subject: the oppressive regime itself (c.f. Shostakovitch) and this seems the only connection capable of being made. All else seems cut off from the dialogue of cultural production, oddly stilted, beautiful sometimes but lacking that particular spark of individuality or resonance that we look for in art.

What that means to me is that the connectivity of art is actually a way for it to express its freedom--to break free (regularly) from the self-imposed limitations of singularity and reach out to other singularities to produce a web, to move beyond expression to communication. The joy of intertextuality, these days sometimes dismissed as being overly "postmodern" (tell that to Shakespeare), is a primary pleasure and purpose of art. So it seems weird to me when people praise their art or others' art for being "subversive," at least when such art is being produced in a reasonably free society, like America: no matter how repressed you might feel, the fact remains that you're not living under a totalitarian regime (see the Salon article for a description of what that's like), so anything you think of as "subversion"--usually defined as sneaking "naughty" messages past a commercial entity--is really just plain ol' intertextuality in the context of an artist willingly changing his message to adapt to an audience. There's very specific offenders I'm thinking of here, and I'll rant about it soon, but suffice to say that the ethic of "subversion" seems primarily to result in assigning more power to a given entity than it really posesses.