Saturday, 11 August 2012

The London Hunger Games...Still Wishing

Fisher's 3-part response to The London Hunger Games...I Wish, on Twitter:

"Fair, if ungenerous, point on Virno. But he's not attacking cynicism in the moralistic way that this point suggests."

"Also, point about cynicism being succeeded by sentimentalism is simply an observation of shifts in media-public mood."

"Pity the writer doesn't understand the irony inherent in the term capitalist realism though."

I wonder what is at stake in the term "moralistic" here? Are we to believe that Virno gives an account of the cynicism and sentimentality of late-capitalist societies, and proceeds to give his recommendations on possibilities for resistance to such societies, but does not, in the process, imply that there is a good and a bad in the case, or at the very least, a better and a worse? Of course Virno is attacking cynicism in a moralistic way, even if he is sufficiently aware of the historical and cultural conditions of right and wrong to know that morality in the old style of lists of commandments or absolute imperatives is no longer appropriate. If we know, by now, that there is nothing either good or bad but thinking (and acting, in times and places) makes it so, it does not follow from this that there is nothing either good or bad! It's all in the thinking - and the discussing, the arguing, the persuading. Once one has thought, then all the awareness of historical and cultural conditionedness in the world cannot relieve one of the responsibility of doing precisely what Virno does: making a case for moral right and wrong. The combination of cynicism and sentimentalism Virno describes as constitutive of late-capitalist societies is, of course, anathema to making a case for moral right and wrong. To the cynic, any view put forward as right or wrong is "moralistic" (and it's all in the tone with which that judgment is delivered); and to the sentimentalist, no sense of right or wrong can trump the way things make us feel.

If I am a writer who "doesn't understand the irony inherent in the term capitalist realism," then I am proud. For, irony is the figure of speech most favoured by the late-capitalist cynic, for whom what is said or done may always operate in exactly the opposite manner that one might think, and who, therefore, loves the fluidity of significance for which the tone of irony allows. B. R. Myers, in his brilliant A Reader's Manifesto, identifies appeals to irony as now an almost sure sign of a mediocre writer: "You didn't laugh at the jokes - but that's the whole point, they're not meant to be funny!"; "You were bored throughout - but that's the whole point, you were meant to be bored!" I believe it might now also be said that appeals to irony are beneath a serious thinker. "You disagree that capitalism amounts to a realism - but that's the whole point, I didn't mean that capitalism amounts to a realism!" Two of the most famous ironists in our tradition - Plato/Socrates and Jane Austen - shared at least the following: the conditions in which they wrote were both straightened and unfriendly to them. Socrates was treading on political eggshells, being watched by the men of Athens lest he make a wrong step; Jane Austen was treading on social and cultural eggshells, being watched by all in sundry lest she fall from feminine grace. Both employed the figure of irony to say what they wished to say by saying the opposite of what they wished to say. A brilliant, effective, and understandable ploy. But we do not live in straightened conditions. On the contrary, we live in "post-modern" conditions, where the rhetoric is of anything-goes. These are cynical times, cynical cynical times, when what you say can mean exactly the opposite of what you say and it makes no difference anyway. Why, then, in these times and under these conditions, resort to irony? Resort, instead, to meaning what you say and saying what you mean: that is the point at which resistance must begin. I would repeat, then, that late-capitalist societies do not any longer even deign to ape the conditions of any kind of reality. When people are cynics, ironists, nihilists, even the semblance of a reality may be dispensed with. Realism is now an anachronism.

As for the claim that the "point about cynicism being succeeded by sentimentalism is simply an observation of shifts in media-public mood," this cannot withstand testimony given by the original piece, The London Hunger Games. Consider for yourself:

"As Paolo Virno argues, cynicism is now an attitude that is simply a requirement for late capitalist subjectivity, a way of navigating a world governed by rules that are groundless and arbitrary. But as Virno also argues, 'It is no accident...that the most brazen cynicism is accompanied by unrestrained sentimentalism.' Once the Games started, cynicism could be replaced by a managed sentimentality."

The manner in which the "observation" about the shift from cynicism to sentimentalism follows immediately from the quotation from Virno, which describes how, in general, cynicism is accompanied by sentimentalism, makes the "observation" into more than "simply an observation." It is quite clearly intended to work as an illustration, or example, of Virno's account. My criticism was that it does not illustrate or exemplify Virno's account correctly, that there is an error. Perhaps I am in error, but I am not in error because I mistook the nature of the claim about cynicism being succeeded by sentimentalism. It is quite clearly not "simply an observation." And I do, at any rate, not think I am in error at all. It is important to get Virno's account right. Fisher sets up the cynical response as rational, to contrast with the sentimental response as hysteria and delirium. But Virno would warn us that cynicism and sentimentalism are now two sides of the same coin, that hysteria is now rational and that reason is now delirium. This is a crucial point, and if it is "ungenerous" to make it, then so be it. The kind of sentimentalism abroad today hears any seriously made criticism as a piece of baffling aggression (a mindless generosity, an "Isn't everything lovely!" mania, is now the only justifiable attitude), just as the kind of cynicism abroad today hears any determinate opinion as "moralistic."

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