Friday, January 11, 2013

An optimistic post-script to "the Dialectic of the Bush"

A few days after writing the last post, I felt like flicking through Adorno and Horkheimer's "Dialectic of Enlightenment". That brilliantly critical, negative, harrowing work which turns the triumphalism of enlightenment thinking on its head.
In Adorno's chapter The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception I found a passage that describes my argument very accurately and in truth probably subconsciously conditioned it:
"Amusement always means putting things out of mind, forgetting suffering, even when it is on display. At its root is powerlessness. It is indeed escape, but not, as it claims, escape from bad reality but from the last thought of resisting that reality. The liberation which amusement promises is from thinking as negation (Stanford University Press 2002 edition: pg 116)."
And it was roughly at this point that my argument about the "Dialectic of the Bush" ended.

Adorno, however, continues:
"The shamelessness of the rhetorical question "What do people want?" lies in the fact that it appeals to the very people as thinking subjects whose subjectivity it specifically seeks to annul. Even on those occasions when the public rebels against the pleasure industry it displays the feebleness systematically instilled in it by that industry."
It's the classic question of human agency. The classic question that many analyses adopting a certain "Spirit of Marxism" (in the language of Derrida) tend to avoid, or can simply "conjure away" by claiming false consciousness. Indeed, Adorno seems to do the latter here: people want "escape" in the form of the products of the culture industry as opposed to a transformed reality - but they are conditioned to want this by the very culture industry that they chose (and is in truth, already chosen for them). He sets up a binary opposition between wanting to escape from and wanting to transform our reality. It's an opposition that works reasonably well when thinking about  mindless TV, exciting action movies and erotic novels, the content of which rarely ever provokes the thought of another future that is unreachable within the frame of today's social relations, political systems, etc...

But is such an opposition effective when examining the "escape" of the bush? To answer this question, we should look at the differences between the reality portrayed by the products of the culture industry, and the reality of the bush.

In many cases, the former is an amplified projection of our current reality. That is, it's a more sensually exciting version of what we experience in the "system" of today. Take the TV show "Friends" for instance. We all have Friends, and many of us have housemates. But I doubt that we experience the same amount of drama, excitement and hillarity that the characters in "Friends" do. We escape to their world, a more exciting version of our own. It is a world that is conceptually possible, if unlikely, for us in the current frame of society. We escape to a better version of our current reality. We do not escape to a transformed reality.

But what is "the bush"? Within the National Park (an entity that is, admittedly, controlled by the system) is nature left untouched by the power of human machinery. It is nature, unappropriated by the dominating logic of enlightenment. In this way, it is a different reality - a pre-enlightenment reality. [the fact that the bounds of these parks are maintained by this type of thought irrelevant for the purposes of our argument - when people are in National Parks, the reality that they immediately perceive is a different one]. It seems utterly conservative, reactionary to look to the future by enlisting the past. But the untouched bushland is not just the past, it is a past before the past, a past before the logic of enlightenment. A different reality that was transformed by enlightenment. By being in the bush, it helps us to understand the possibility of something entirely different - how often do we say/hear "I wonder what it would be like to be an aboriginal here thousands of years ago".
Herein lies the radicalising power of the bush. It can help us to imagine, conceptualise an entirely different reality.

Personally, my first radicalised reaction to the bush was to adopt a kind of conservative environmentalism - "wouldn't it be great if we could transform our reality by living like that, off the land, between the trees, again". And I went some distance to trying to convert my own personal reality to reflect this ideal. I then realised that this goal, on a large scale, was much too simplistic and almost impossible for humans in their current state. The "living like that, off the land, between the trees, again" withered away. But what remained was a revolutionary kernel: "wouldn't it be great if we could transform our reality".

So, I'd argue that in regards to the bush, the binary opposition of escape vs transformation is not applicable. The bush is an "escape" that helps us to deal with "bad reality". But, at the same time, it has the potential to engender a kind of transformative thinking, a revolutionary mindset - it certainly did so for me. The fact that it can remain systemic while retaining subversive potential - that it can, to use a cliche, "fly under the radar" - gives it immense power as a weapon in the struggle to transform "bad reality".

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