I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.
Rutger Hauer likely had no idea he was presenting humanity with its own perfect eulogy when he said those words. According to Ridley Scott and screenwriter David Peoples, Hauer made several last-minute changes to the soliloquy he was about to deliver on the set of Blade Runner.
The original text of the monologue, though about the same length, included a few more oblique references to the film’s universe. Roy Batty was to have watched “C-beams glitter” from “on the back decks of a blinker.” He burning attack ships were to be described as “bright as magnesium.”
Hauer removed much of this, describing it as “opera talk,” adding nothing to the film. And then he added “All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”
His delivery similarly struck the balance between the marvel of being human and the vast destructiveness of a world that has grown so violently beyond the limits of a single planet. Though the other replicants simply and understandably are afraid of dying, of having their short consciousness snuffed, Batty stands apart as a lifeform in deep and unrequited love with his ability to live.
Even the manner in which he says “tears in rain” is that of someone who has just discovered that he is able to come up with such a simple yet sublime metaphor. And though we’ve seen Batty do brutal and gruesome things to others throughout the film, we have also rooted for him as he spends his last moments thrashing against the inevitability of his own death. We have to regard the unfairness of seeing his consciousness slip away while the world that teased him with it gets to continue.
Of course, that world isn’t continuing. It’s ending. At the time of Blade Runner’s release the idea that a society would so willfully and cruelly design itself into its own doom was a controversial one. Words like “cyberpunk,” “global warming” and “neoliberalism” were still only edging into wide consciousness.
The film flopped at the box office. Years and decades were spent re-cutting it. Scott rightfully knew he was on to something with Blade Runner, but finding the right way to end and tell the story, the perfect way to articulate the something, was a challenge.
We know very well what he was onto now. In 1982, viewers still had to imagine such a bleak world. Today we are seeing it converge into reality. David Harvey and others have spent years saying that this future is more or less in the DNA of the contemporary city. To walk around Los Angeles, a city of obscene wealth and inequality exposed to increasingly hostile elements, that rapidly shifts between development and neglect and decay, still grasping in vain to convince anyone who will listen that it contains the seeds of an unlikely future, is to see this premonition borne out.
And so we have caught on. Blade Runner is a classic. One of the greatest films ever made. And in no small part due to the performance of the now late Rutger Hauer. Our own short memories have had Batty’s dying soliloquy etched into them because, past all the pollutants we have shoved into them, we know when we are seeing something purely and magnificently human.
We too have seen things we wouldn’t believe. Whole cities flooded and burned simultaneously. Gargantuan glaciers come apart like a child’s sand castle in the wind. We know that we’ve created what we’re seeing and can’t help but marvel at the raw obliteration we are capable of unleashing. Even by accident.
We have, in that recognition, attempted to replicate it. To convince ourselves that we can push our collective human awareness past extinction. In so many other films and books and TV shows that populate the glut of 21st century sci-fi. We have even made a sequel which, unlike its predecessor, was a notable success at the box office.
But Blade Runner: 2049 was not the accurate sequel. It never could be. The only sequel worthy of the original would by its nature have to be far simpler. And by dying the same year as Batty, Hauer managed to achieve it in a haunting, terrifying, heartbreaking way.
He reminded us that mortality isn’t a fantasy, or a plot device rendered by a unique and versatile actor. That sapient beings will die. Are dying. Are being killed by forces we created but are now well beyond our control.
Fair? It’s never a question of fairness. Only of how we ultimately fit in with the same cosmic logic that leaves all of us in awe.
This July 4th let’s ponder the way in which our lives are dominated. Our existence slyly orchestrated. Our experiences siphoned down highways dotted with endless signs that ask in that prodding way “why aren’t you happy yet?”
“Kids are in cages” we answer. “They are ripped from their families trying to escape violence and poverty that this country created in their own. They’ve been herded into pens. They sleep on concrete floors.
“They are deprived toothbrushes, clean water, ample food. They are watched over by vicious and unfeeling people who have been trained every step of the way to dehumanize and humiliate. We cannot be happy in the midst of this.”
Armed guards step out from behind each of the signs. They ready their rifles. And they ask, once again, “why aren’t you happy yet?”
* * *
Fifty years ago Guy Debord and the situationists looked at the way in which the logic of commodity had insinuated itself into every aspect of daily life. Building on Marx and Lukács he zoned in on the concept of reification, the way in which a commodity makes the manufactured seem natural, and the social relations of any given time appear eternal. Starting in the 1920s, mass media and consumerism had aided in the spread of this logic and its further transformation into a “common sense” worldview.
This is the spectacle. Under the spectacle everything becomes a simulation of sorts. Materials and items are no longer viewed primarily in terms of what they can be used for but what their value is on the market. And since literally every item in our lives is a commodity, since even our time and consciousness are subject to that same process, every human interaction becomes transactional.
With this transactional nature comes all kinds of other behavioral assumptions. We punish those who don’t live up to the transaction, praise those who do, conspire behind backs of both. Human bonds are based not on camaraderie, sympathy, solidarity, mutual recognition of talent, but on whether we can get back a return on what we invest in them. Every human interaction is mediated through this prism, and ideas that subvert them are easily sucked back into the system and sanitized. If commodity and bureaucracy present themselves as eternal and above history, what they achieve is placing us outside of the historical process, outside of our ability to experience and change the conditions of our lives.
It is not quite correct to say that aesthetics play a role in this. More to the point, what the rise of consumerism, public relations, the streamlining of state and private media all managed to accomplish was a version of what Walter Benjamin called “the aestheticization of politics.” Aesthetics, the practice and study of how the environment can be changed to interact with our sensuous lives and subjective selves, becomes woven into political economy.
For Debord the phenomenon of the spectacle could be accomplished through the implication of force (the maintenance of order through constant threat of violence that characterizes authoritarian states, which Debord called “concentrated spectacle”) or the illusion of choice in a society overwhelmed by commodities (“diffuse spectacle,” which we associate with consumerism).
In most modern capitalist societies, however, Debord saw a fusion of the two prevailing. This he called the “integrated spectacle,” achieved through the close cooperation of state and private enterprise. Underneath the apparent abundance, very real and crude machinations of secrecy move. We are both convinced and coerced into the belief that this is the best of all possible worlds, systems, nations.
* * *
In 2013 McKenzie Wark, radical author and one of the best living experts on the subject of Debord and the situationists, postulated that we had transcended the previous forms of spectacle. He wrote:
These days one might speak of a disintegrating spectacle, in which the centralized forms of mediating the spectacle break down into fragments but retain their commodified form. Thus these days we all have to participate in making display ads and writing advertising slogans – selfies posed in newly purchased outfits – assuming the burden of doubling the consumption of things with the consumption of images. All against the background of what Debord called a sick planet, groaning under the weight of waste.
Wark was correct. The brilliance of capitalism’s use of technological innovation has always been in its ability to parse and rearrange the process of production. It eliminates whatever it needs to eliminate and outsources whatever it can outsource. To make us not just complicit but active and enthusiastic actors in the market, even when we are not consciously working or buying something; this is truly genius.
And yet one wonders whether the disintegrated spectacle even captures it anymore. As so many of the threats and specters we thought were long gone return and collide and mix with new existential threats. The new always brings with it markers of the old. Even as the disintegration continues, new ways are (re)discovered to integrate and infuse.
Today, on July 4th, there is a military parade in Washington, DC. Awesome destructive power is rhythmically rolled through city streets, simultaneously encouraging wonder and threatening its use. Spectators cheer and clap and listen to music. We become even more emotionally invested in a system that when push comes to shove will gladly use that same force against us.
Meanwhile, so much of online chatter seems to be boosting and reifying the idea that we should not call them “concentration camps” (we fucking should). But of course, given what we know of the medium, this narrative doesn’t just come from the “top down.” It’s not melodramatic to say that we are supervisors to our own virtual petty bureaucracies in which others read as disposable. This is the shape of participation in a process in which we are monitored and manipulated, in which commodification and securitization are quickly becoming synonymous.
Is this a new phase? Are capital and the spectacle showing themselves capable of centralizing through decentralization? Hasn’t this always been how it operates to one degree or another?
Is the Trumpian moment, with its reality show redeployment of “America First” rhetoric, simultaneously searching for new ways to isolate and atomize, the moment of, for lack of a better term, “re/dis/integrated spectacle”?
And what, exactly, does this mean for resistance? Actual resistance. Not the kind that comes with a hashtag in front of it.
I had no idea who Marianne Williamson is before Thursday night’s Democratic debate. But I have seen Marianne Williamson before. We all have.
We’ve been seeing her for nearly thirty years, occupying that liminal space that is marginal but still mainstream, crank but still credible in the post-kombucha world.
She is the voice lecturing an exhausted Whole Foods worker from the pages of a yoga magazine.
She is the kind of person who sees crisis and opportunity as the same thing because she still thinks that they actually are the same word in Mandarin.
She is Gwyneth Paltrow’s sentient second head; the one that we have all secretly dreaded in our nightmares.
I have seen Marianne Williamson before. We all have. She is a certified organic outgrowth of American culture and politics.
* * *
“Heal the soul of America” is the motto on her website. And though it and her untethered tweets won’t likely deliver her a presidential nomination, her motivational poster tone is at home with the vagaries of American politics pulling against their own rudderlessness and a liberalism very bad at covering up its elitism. They also tell us something about the darkness that can come out of such directionless drifts.
She is obviously and commendably right about plenty of things. She has showed up at demonstrations against the concentration camps. Her website contains rhetoric against union-busting and more. She is anti-war. And there is a worldview in which these can sit comfortably next to a history of neo-Victorian “self-help.” In such a worldview there are certain actions that don’t count as union-busting, things that can be “healed” rather than repaired, gaps in the societal infrastructure that are filled by nothing but sentiment and aura.
Let’s be clear: on an individual basis there is no problem with meditative or spiritual practices. I meditate twice a day and shudder to think of how my anxiety would overwhelm me if I didn’t. You go to an acupuncturist? Do yoga? Put crystals by your bed? Whatever you have to do to hold on to your sense of subjective self in an objectively bleak and devastatingly cruel world.
In a system that overwhelms us and inserts itself into our thoughts every chance it can get, we do whatever we have to in order to get a sense of quietude, reflection. There is a gap between the work we are coerced into and our actual desire to labor with interest, to use our creativity, that can only be called inhuman. And it is why so many artists who rely on a seemingly odd spiritual practices are able to so deftly find unexplored angles of daily existence in a world that we are told should be a certain way.
There is, after all, a whole history of left-wing and Marxist sympathy with the deep exploration of the self, of attempts to “disalienate” it. Not to mention serious left-wing engagement with theology that have boosted and supplemented our understanding of history. It’s why the declarations of “just focus on your activism” from so much of the boorish left regarding mental health not only fall insultingly flat but ignores significant portions of Marxist cultural thought.
What “wellness” philosophies offer is something altogether different. In fact they far more often achieve the opposite of the exploration of self and subject. These ideas and practices, paid for and exchanged, take on the character of anything instilled with the logic of commodity. They are one-size-fits all and disregard psychological and physiological nuance. They promise more than they deliver, and invite us to rearrange our identities around them, leaving us feeling less fulfilled and whole than we did before.
And then there are the outwardly harmful ideas. “Functional medicine,” anti-vaxx, even HIV denialism (all ideas that Williamson has skated dangerously close to). There is of course a wide gap between downing a shot of wheatgrass every morning and refusing to vaccinate your child. But the overarching conversation of what is “natural,” completely unmoored as it is from any notion of accountability or rigor, is underlying every transphobic troll asking about “who is a real woman.” It is in every proto-eugenic discussion about which developing country deserves to drown in a flood.
* * *
All politics at some point has to confront the process of how the subjective becomes the objective. And when meditation is promoted in lieu of universal healthcare, when “mindfulness” becomes an excuse for companies to abuse and overwork, there is likely all manner of manipulative pseudo-philosophies afoot.
Hell, capitalism itself is based on the phantasmic notion that wealth simply creates itself. So really we cannot be all that surprised that this type of ideological filler is rising up into the cracks. Labor does not create wealth for Marianne Williamson, it comes from “self-actualization.” Never you mind that her and any version of self-actualization requires some amount or another of resources. Resources that cost money. Money that evidently comes from the ether of good vibes.
Pity the middling white ego. Noticing nothing but oppression as far as the eye can see. Having its drive back from the Hamptons interrupted by marching Black people, hearing people speak Spanish at the grocery store, encountering homeless people in broad daylight who refuse to decrease the surplus population. Oppression is positively everywhere for this poor, disgruntled soul!
Now, there’s a new addition to the long list of oppressors of the white ego: the act of definition. The dictionary, the thesaurus, the mutability of the English language that somehow still refuses to let you speak to the manager, even the guy who invented Godwin’s Law. Whose name I can’t seem to remember…
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez thinks that, just because people of a certain racial and ethnic background are being separated from their families and detained without trial at the border, she can draw some kind of historical parallel to other times when people of a certain racial and ethnic background were separated from their families detained without trial.
How dare she? Doesn’t she realize that if we want to defeat the right then we need to appease the right? That the fragile ego is best when it is coddled and that it won’t by any means take advantage of our generosity? Maybe it’s just me but I don’t think we are going to get anywhere by riling up the likes of Dick Cheney’s daughter. We all know she’s learned how to waterboard by now…
And so, in that spirit, in the American spirit of compromise and reaching across the aisle, here are some alternative names for that loaded, ugly phrase “concentration camp.”
1. Civility Camp 2. America Was Already Great Camp 3. Euphemism Camp 4.Trump International Hotel Rio Grande 5. Plausible Deniability Camp 6. Camp Where People Are Concentrated 7. Liz Cheney’s Wacky Fun Time Camp 8. Freedom Camp (with fences and bars) 9. Friendly Neighbor Camp 10. Concentration Lamp 11. The American Prison System 12. The Circular Route of History Makes Me Uncomfortable Camp 13. It’s Not a Concentration Camp Because You Don’t Like to Think You’d Have Been a Nazi In the 30s But It’s Definitely a Concentration Camp and You’d Definitely Have Been a Nazi In the 30s Camp 14. ICE Bucket 15. Camp of American Exceptionalism 16. Mean Puerto Rican Lady Made Me Cry Camp 17. Gary 18. The American Public School System 19. Guantanamo 20. The American Mental Healthcare System 21. I Can’t Believe It’s Not a Concentration Camp! 22. We’re Still Charging You $1850 a Month In Rent Camp 23. Actually, They Were Fascists, Not Nazis Camp 24. Ignore That FDR Also Called the Japanese Internment Camps “Concentration Camps” Camp 25. Disneyland
Disclaimer: Lest anyone think I am “making light” of all this, I’ll simply paraphrase Stewart Lee and point out that the aim of this post is to use the rhetoric and implied values of the American moderate (and by extension the American right) to satirize the rhetoric and implied values of the American moderate (and by extension the American right). And even if you’re made squeamish by that, perhaps this explanation will nonetheless save you the trouble of writing an angry and useless email.
It is early afternoon in Havana, and someone hands us a small flier. It reads:
We are a collective of artists that come together every night at a small, dark and decadent underground hideaway. It also happens to be the best dance floor in the city. Looking for something with a little more edge than La Bodeguita or El Floridita? Come find us.
In a few hours our large group – mostly white and indigenous United Statesians – are headed to the address provided. We walk down narrow, partially lit cobbled streets nestled between tall, ornate Old World buildings, past families playing dominos on card tables, countless stray dogs and cats, and the municipal headquarters for the Cuban Communist Party in Old Havana.
There is, every few blocks or so, a building that is a shell of itself. Whether it is being renovated or torn down is difficult to tell. Investment for development and construction is painfully slow to come in. What’s more the city’s administration is determined to maintain as much of the aesthetic integrity of its architecture as possible. This means not just construction workers but artisans trained in crafts that haven’t been needed for most buildings in decades. Recently the government has set up colleges and arts schools dedicated to training young students in these crafts. But again, there are few resources with which to keep these institutions running.
Occasionally, there are buildings that simply cannot be revamped or rebuilt, and these are to be demolished in order to put in a park or garden. In Old Havana – an area where structures are as much as five hundred years old – there is a notable lack of green space.
The underground club is, as promised, small and dark. We each pay five dollars or convertible Cuban pesos to enter. We are given a free drink. After that each one is four dollars. Compared to what I am used to paying for alcohol in Los Angeles, this is a steal.
There are two cozy rooms, one for the bar and one for the makeshift dance floor. In the middle of the latter is a small vinyl covered sofa. By the end of the night there will be perhaps a hundred people crammed in there, dancing to a mix between hip-hop, reggaeton and roots reggae. Our small group is likely the only American presence and, other than a couple of English rugby players, probably the only non-Cubans in the place.
The artists’ collective hosting us is, for tonight at least, showing off its creative talents primarily through the medium of dance. The ceiling is criss-crossed with strong metal bars, not too unlike a lighting truss over a stage. Throughout the night, several young dancers will jump up on the sofa, grab the bars and perform moves that are physically remarkable whether you know dance or not. Dances that don’t merely employ the legs or hips or torso, but rely on the strength and flexibility of arms, necks, the ability to tangle and un-tangle one’s self from their partner in mid-air.
There is a rather straightforward gender dynamic. Plenty of same sex couples dance with each other, and there are several non-binary dancers in the room. They are far from a marginal presence. In fact it is they who are often seizing the spotlight in the center of the room throughout the night. We sweat, we gyrate, we lose track of time for the sake of a place whose distinct air we have never breathed before.
Catching my breath by the bar, I notice that as my friends and I come up, we happily pay the requested four dollars for a beer, a glass of wine, a shot of tequila, a mojito or Cuba libre. However, when someone from the neighborhood comes up, speaking Cuban Spanish, they aren’t charged a thing. Has this night been put on “for us”? Not exactly. We’ve been invited here to pay what are, by American standards, very cheap prices in order to pay for their night out, their revelry.
And we have no complaints. We have been shown something of Havana that is quite separate from the official narrative. Something of the social rituals and leisure of people whose desires and stories have been shown to American eyes only through the most manipulated lenses.
* * *
I won’t romanticize Cuba, no matter how enchanted I found myself during our short visit. But neither should anyone concerned with the imaginary of human liberation dismiss it. Suffice it to say that in twenty years as a Marxist I’ve never encountered a theory that seems to satisfactorily explain the Cuban socialist experiment. The leftist realm of “critical support” seems to be entirely occupied by those either entirely uncritical or woefully unsupportive.
The closest to an exception I’ve come across is that of CLR James and his co-thinkers. He understood that revolutions are less events than they are processes, and that processes can be shaped one way or the other by any number or combination of social forces.
As such, his “critical support” of the Cuban Revolution was both genuinely critical and actively supportive. He was clear that the 1959 revolution had made massive gains in kicking out western imperialism and American interests, in redistributing resources to the poorest Cubans, but also that it had failed to put decisive democratic power in the collective hands of working people. He also gladly participated in the January 1968 Havana Cultural Congress, which was one of many such gatherings held in the city during the era of anti-colonial rebellion.
This process – a process countless radicals found worthy of their participation – grabbed the imagination of people across the world during this era for a very good reason. For many Caribbean revolutionaries – not just James but Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Claudia Jones and countless others – the significance of the Cuban experience was found in the possibility it presented for the forging of a new, independent Caribbean identity. Specifically one that radically departed from the path of colonialism, subjugation, and genocide that western capitalism had imposed on the region.
This vision is a powerful one, and it has endured through countless events and actions that could undermine it. Even as the Cultural Congress was underway, black Cuban writers and intellectuals critical of the government’s lack of action around racism were prevented from participating. In the later summer of that same year, hopes that Cuba might present a model of development independent from Moscow were dashed when Fidel supported the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring. And yet, the idea of Cuba as a locus of Caribbean liberation continued. Not because of what it had become, but because of what it might have the potential to be.
Now, of course, that process is both isolated and stalled. Its horizons have been narrowed greatly. Not just by the fall of the Soviet Union, but the sclerotic imaginations of those who have inherited leadership from Fidel and the slowly dying original generation of revolutionaries. Miguel Díaz-Canel, president and likely successor to Raul Castro as First Secretary of the Communist Party, was born in 1960. He has little actual memory of the revolution or the dynamic processes it unleashed.
The Pink Tide that briefly gave Cuba much-needed oxygen in terms of ideas and resources has receded. Chavez is dead and Venezuela is in crisis, thanks largely to US meddling virtually identical to what Cuba has been subjected to. Brazil, the largest economy in Latin America, now has a far-rightist in at its helm; he routinely threatens to sever diplomatic relations with Cuba.
All of which needs to be kept in mind when considering the new travel restrictions imposed by the US this past Tuesday. Sixty years of these types of restrictions have done very little to destabilize – let alone dislodge – the Cuban government. It is worth asking whether they are in actuality even designed to. Cruise ships, private and corporate flights have been banned, but commercial flights are as of now unaffected, and people are still allowed to go to the island for business trips.
The types of traveler affected most by these restrictions appear to be the tourist and the student. Steve Mnuchin, he who helped design Donald Trump’s slow-motion economic catastrophe in the US, claims the rules are designed to “help to keep US dollars out of the hands of Cuban military, intelligence, and security services.” Except that these are visitors who are most likely to spend their money in ways that go most directly to ordinary working Cubans. For example, our ability to support a small artist collective. Pointing once again to the gap between the actual impact of sanctions and embargoes and their stated targets.
These restrictions are, along with the above, an easy propaganda boost for Trump. Not just in terms of the saber-rattling against Venezuela, but in his renewed push to prove that “America will never be a socialist country.” Imperialism is talented at turning the economic into the ideological, and it has a readymade reserve of support in the most hardcore segments of Trump’s base. For these people the mere presence of a welfare state in Cuba is enough for them to denounce free education and healthcare as “communism” anywhere in the world. That such social programs are now popular demands among large swathes of young people in the US is all the more reason to punish its presence anywhere. The free movement of people and ideas be damned.
Here’s a series of questions for my “fellow” Americans. Answer honestly. Do you really need to know what Prince Harry and Meghan Markle named their son? Should you even give a blue shit? Is the fact that you have twelve years to stop your city from sinking underwater in any way impacted by the naming habits of people who have space reserved for them in the nearest sealed doomsday biodome?
The answer to all of these questions is, naturally, no. And yet you know his name. It’s Archie, the little bastard. You may wish that part of your brain was occupied by more useful information, but there you have it.
Gertrude Stein once said something to the effect that the United States is the world’s oldest country because it was the first to enter the 20th century. A fascist-sympathizing hack she may have been, but she was onto something when she said this. History never moves in a straight line, and as nations surge ahead their dominance creates complacency that soon renders them anachronistic. But we Americans love our linear time. It’s behind every single sanctimonious parable of American exceptionalism. And it’s why we’ve given the world some of its most insufferably thick historians.
We love to talk of progress. But the contradiction of progress is that in a society where resources are so unevenly distributed, it is always incomplete. The same progress can merely widen the gulf, transforming the mildly backward into a jarring rift in space-time.
And so it tracks, perfectly and tragically, that in a time of abject cultural decay, we have this homuncular notion of American culture that not only tolerates monarchy, in all its long history of parasitism, but outright celebrates it.
It’s an even more brazen example of what I described regarding Anna Sorokin. Industrial society moves toward democracy, stops halfway. That society has a need to valorize its limited social mobility compared to a system dominated by divine right. But as its organs of democracy both formal and everyday continue to atrophy, this valorization mediates the gap between the haves and have-nots. It obscures the gap’s causes by blurring the lines between meritocracy and self-entitlement. Divine right, mutated by two hundred years of partial sunlight, once again rears its head.
And here we are at the current conjuncture. When billionaire reality TV stars can become president despite losing the popular vote, when Kylie Jenner is defended with a straight face for “earning” her billion dollars, is it all that surprising that the British monarchy is the object of this particularly American form of fawning?
Yes, some of it is a reciprocation of the royal family’s twenty-year-long “We Didn’t Kill Diana” PR campaign, in which “commoners,” even American actors can seize the throne. For sure, it has made things easier on the royals themselves. Eighty years ago the king had to abdicate before marrying an American and meeting with Hitler. Now, all a royal has to do is dress like Hitler before marrying the American!
The American revolutionary experience was, to put it mildly, an uneven one. It hadn’t the involvement of plebeians or women that we saw in the French Revolution. And naturally its insistence on maintaining chattel slavery was one of the reasons that the Haitian Revolution and eventually the Civil War became necessary. If there is anything that it had going for it, though, it was its anti-royalism. Its belief that a bunch of oblivious, inbred, gout-ridden toffs had no business telling anyone what to do.
And now these same remorseless cretins have danced under the radar back into your hearts? Where is your spine? Where’s your sense of dignity? Where (sweet merciful crap, I never thought I would write this) is your patriotism?
“In her world, this is what her social circle did… Everyone’s life was perfectly curated for social media. People were fake. People were phoney. And money was made on hype alone.”
So says the defense attorney for Anna Sorokin – aka Anna Delvey. Sorokin was convicted last month of what amounts to one big scam of New York’s social elite. Three counts of grand larceny, one count of attempted grand larceny, four counts of theft of services. She was sentenced on Thursday to a maximum of twelve years in jail. ICE have also confirmed that Sorokin – who has German citizenship – will likely be deported at some point.
Reading through the list of her escapades, you can’t help but be impressed. Socialites, five-star hotels, even a hefty loan from City National Bank. Over the course of four years she managed to bilk them out of around $275,000. She got others to pay for luxury rooms, private jets, vacations to Morocco, and lavish nights out while having barely a cent to her name. All by convincing people that she was heiress to a $67 million fortune.
She isn’t. Her father is a truck driver and her mother is a housewife. Who said millennials lack ambition?
Sorokin’s conviction and sentencing have, predictably, been the source of vigorous buzz and chatter. For some she’s been the object of derision and spite, for others she’s cause for the gleefullest of glee. Fashionistas have gandered at her choice of clothing throughout her trial. Shonda Rhimes is developing a series based on Sorokin’s story. Lena Dunham is working on another.
Still others have wondered why it is that the New York District Attorney has gone after Sorokin with such viciousness while in the past he has failed to prosecute the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Dominique Strauss-Kahn for more serious crimes. Some suspect sexism afoot, and I reckon there is something to this.
What interests me the most though is what Sorokin’s lawyer means when he says “her world.” Because, after all, the life of the rich and privileged wasn’t “hers.” It’s precisely this that in the end got her into so much trouble. In Sorokin’s case it is less about the amount of money she stole than who she stole it from, who she pretended to be. At the core of it, her biggest crime is the crime of false pretense.
In some ways, though, it was her world. If her place within it could be so easily adopted and faked, then perhaps that says more about the world than her. Sorokin’s actions didn’t just rely on aestheticization. They were, in their entirety, aestheticization. Delvey never existed. She was made up, invented, carefully curated and skillfully plotted.
Ben Davis writes of how the art world was the circulatory system through which Delvey ran her scams. She promised an arts center to potential financial backers, featuring art from Koons and Christo. Her Instagram presence (as she is sure to have learned from so many Rich Kids of Instagram) was patiently crafted and constructed. It suggested that Sorokin had a deep appreciation and love for art and aesthetics. Though as Davis has also pointed out, this could itself be an act; for all we know of Anna Delvey, Sorokin could have known and appreciated as much about art as the average Wikipedia reader.
Whatever the case, Sorokin has if nothing else closely studied the ways of the rich and spoiled. Her ability to convince those around her that she was an heiress reflects how perceptive this study was. But it also reveals that there isn’t a whole lot of difficulty in aping the upper crust, in convincing them that you are one of them. There is no substance to fake, no authenticity to mine, just an image to cultivate.
Yes, it is old hat to point out that the lives of the rich are, behind the glitz, empty and banal. Or that social media aids in the cultivation of these full spectrum poses. But there is also something particular about the timing of Sorokin’s story, falling as it does in an era also marked by the Fyre Fest fiasco, by Elizabeth Holmes, by the specter of the “millennial scammer.” Compare this crop with those behind the Enron or WorldCom scandals of the early 2000’s, and you start to see an added element in play.
It is more than generational turnover. More than just conspicuous consumption. The global slump of 2008 was a foundational crisis in neoliberalism, exposing not just its inner machinations but thusly forcing sections to reassess how it maintained cultural hegemony. If financialization required the basic workings of exploitation to be obscured, aestheticized, then the crisis of this template required an intensification of neoliberalism’s specific relationship with the culture industry.
Take, as an example, the rich people of reality television. Not long before the ‘08 crash, production studios had begun to lean heavily on reality TV. This was most immediately an adaptation to the four-month writers’ strike that put countless scripts on hold. But the strike itself was indicative of much larger rifts that were opening up in Hollywood’s business model. And so Hollywood also stumbled on a very profitable lesson.
Today, reality TV is far more bankable than scripted shows. Labor costs are lower for them and their ratings are on the whole higher, but they also reflect and encourage a peculiarly voyeuristic kind of moralism. Among them a special place is held for shows like Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Real Housewives, Southern Charm; shows that dramatize the idleness of the pampered. Their mundane pettiness is wrapped in the pretense of high drama, and in such a way that it wouldn’t be if they were of a more common socioeconomic stature.
The line between content and form becomes blurred, and it is used against us. Our emotional investment in the petty behaviors of the privileged mirrors the way in which our own lives are financially tied up with the maintenance of their lifestyles. Yes, the vacuity of the rich has been laid bare, but even in schadenfreude, we are made complicit in that same vacuity.
This dynamic doesn’t merely apply to gulag bait reality TV. But the specific form exhibits a logic that has been widely instilled in neoliberalism and accelerated in its later, post-crash iteration. The internet, social media, the generalized on-demand-ification of our cultural artifacts, even the rise of a mundane surveillance state; all have instilled in public consciousness that we somehow have a purchase in the lives of others. And if it seems as if the lives of the more well-off have more weight in that purchase, well, then you probably also have understood the double meaning behind the word “purchase.”
What we are talking about then is a huge innovation in glamour, in the psychology and aesthetics of envy. Glamour and envy in the way that Berger described them almost fifty years ago:
Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion. The industrial society which has moved towards democracy and then stopped half way is the ideal society for generating such an emotion. The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged as a universal right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual feel powerless. He lives in the contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be. Either he then becomes fully conscious of the contradiction and its causes, and so joins the political struggle for full democracy which entails, among other things, the overthrow of capitalism; or else he lives, continually subject to an envy which, compounded with his sense of powerlessness, dissolves into recurrent day-dreams.
Telescope this forward to today. The means of reproducing the day-dream have been revolutionized and innovated a thousand times over. Yet the means to democratize daily life haven’t just failed to keep up but have been coerced from us.
What happens when someone decides to not merely stay in the daydream, but make it their reality at any cost? The answer is found somewhere in the gap between Anna Sorokin and her avatar Anna Delvey. With the desires of the first unrealizable, the invention of the second becomes necessary. And the only skill needed is a convincing con game.
It is not just that the lives of the rich are empty, it is that this very same emptiness has become its greatest source of strength. The void has gotten bored of staring back. Now it’s devouring us whole. And when we finally get to its center, there’ll be nothing waiting for us but Lena Dunham.