The Aesthetics of Stupidity (1)

This is the first in a series of posts in which I outline a certain aesthetic fixation on what I am simply calling ‘stupidity,’ which seemed to be at the front of my brain when considering this passing decade. I make no claim as to its ubiquity, dominance, or even frequency.

[UPDATED below]

The prophecy was first heard in 2006 , but by then it was mere journalism. America is dumb and getting dumber. Mike Judge’s dystopian Idiocracy assumes the logical outcome of consumer society is cognitive and cultural retardation, encapsulated in an infamous montage where the Fuddrucker’s logo gradually morphs into:

That the film was made a martyr by its distributor 20th Century Fox probably has less to do with its vision of cultural decline (buttressed by the eugenicist argument that the greater popularity of breeding among the lower classes is mass stupidity’s efficient cause) than with this montage sequence, along with the other spoofs on mass market brands — ‘Brawndo’ energy drinks, Pepsi and Carls Jr. as government sponsors, Starbucks gives handjobs, characters are named after brands — crossing the line of acceptability.

These corporate defacements are the best thing about an otherwise unremarkable and poorly conceived comedy, such that it’s perhaps better thought of as an Adbusters-style toolkit for ‘culture jamming’ (sort of how it’s used in the above link) than an actual film.

That said, it was one of the few satires the American film industry managed to produce in the ’00s, and probably the most effective in the traditional sense of the genre. One could comment here on the failure of narrative to capture the complete and total travesty that was American life in the first decade of the new millennium, that only the most fragmentary and/or ad-drenched forms of media (television, the Internet) managed to say anything coherent about the present as a historical moment that didn’t consist of 100% recycled material.

Or one could just watch Southland Tales. Released in 2007 and set in an alternate 2008, also a ‘satire’ of sorts, it attempts to reproduce the aesthetics of media ubiquity: a digital interface that handles cutting between different narrative threads (complete with news ticker), an ‘ironic’ cast of B-list celebrities, the cinematography of a music video or luxury car ad (when not via handicam), bad sketch comedy,  old-fashioned metafiction, comic book tie-ins, and lots of stuff happening all the time. Yet as packed as it is, and despite the literally apocalyptic buildup, the film is oddly boring. Maybe because the End Times are already here — the reality the film assumes from the beginning. Director Richard Kelly attempts to provide structure via Justin Timberlake’s interminable voice-over narration (added after its panning at Cannes) and a pointlessly complicated plot that tries to disguise the fact that it has nothing to do with anything and could in fact have been plagiarized from a ’90s postmodern conspiracy novel (itself ripped off of Robert Anton Wilson and/or Thomas Pynchon). As Gerry and I discussed in conversation, it collapses three historical moments into the same ‘present’ — its references are contemporary, its aesthetic sensibility is ’90s, and its nostalgia (as with Kelly’s earlier Donnie Darko) is for the late ’80s, just prior to the End of History. Though perhaps tempting, it’s hard to deny that the film tries to be, now and again, a satire, even a political satire. The attempt fails catastrophically.

It is of course a film that was ‘too big to not fail,’ so all appropriate slack should be cut.  And its failure is an interesting one. Steven Shaviro gives a more positive take here, in what is overall one of his best pieces of online writing:

Booed at Cannes in 2006, and both a critical and box-office disaster in 2007, the film obviously has not found its niche, nor found its cult, nor even made the sort of negative impact that would qualify it as a Cultural Event on the order of all the things that it narrates. I’m inclined to think that this is simply because the film is too prophetic: which is also to say, too real, too close to the actuality of which it is a part and which it anatomizes and mirrors, to be receivable at this point in time. The most alien messages are the ones that point out clearly what is staring us in the face. All the more so, in that such messages can have no sense of detachment, no critical perspective, to provide a justification for what they say. Southland Tales declines to exempt itself in the slightest from the overall situation that it describes; it declines even to overtly criticize that situation, as this would mean having to step outside it, as well as because simply presenting it, in its own compulsive mirroring and feeding back of itself, is already more than enough. Kelly’s film is too weird to be taken up by a mainstream audience; but also too mainstream, too much a part of the so-called mainstream, to please viewers and critics who are looking for either visionary, experimental formalism, or an informed oppositional politics. It also explodes the very being of cinema (including experimental cinema) so slyly and casually that it unavoidably offends most cinephiles.

Toning down this hyperbolic praise, I would say that, at its best and worst, Southland Tales is ‘about’ a very specific sort of stupidity, albeit one that has been building for quite some time, a kind of apocalyptic cognitive failure, what would happen if we lived in Jean Baudrillard’s alternate universe  but with his transcendent, guiding intelligence replaced by the 24/7 cliche flow of a comic book nerd. Because, insofar as the media world of absolute commodification really does ‘map’ reality, then that is exactly what has happened to ‘critical discourse on culture’ in this decade, in which I include satirical and ‘serious’ films, novels, visual art, etc. as well as niche genres like academic monographs. If we were to grant all the absurdities assumed by those who have been making such claims since the ’80s (?), it would be even more of a misreading to try to label Southland Tales as creative ‘genius’ or a ‘masterpiece.’ In order to read its intelligence failure as a virtue instead of a symptom — to read it as ‘naive,’ as an epic instead of a failed satire — one paradoxically has to ignore its own botched attempts at distinguishing parodic frame from parodied content. One has to decontextualize it from itself.  Analogous to the way that vital bit of postmodern folklore, “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” is so often taken as the beginning of analysis rather than its dead end. All this leads me to hypothesize an identifiable strategy of misreading emergent in this decade, one perhaps necessary for the application of traditional aesthetic criticism to certain new kinds of material, and again not limited to academic or intellectual critique.

UPDATE BEGINS: An update, if I can call it that, of camp:

55. Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.

56. Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of “character.” . . . Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “a camp,” they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.


As a completed, reified product, Southland Tales is more clearly looked at as a bigger (and thus more ‘epic’) enclosure and/or recapitulation of media forms and stereotypes than would be possible for entry-level users like you and me, its sublime (yet context-minimal) moments no more or less so than any available on the myriad Internet video networks into which they’ve already been displaced. A chunk of media time, regurgitated. And then, (seamlessly) reintegrated.


20 Responses to “The Aesthetics of Stupidity (1)”

  1. Buck Swash Says:

    You’ll have to tend to a lot of traffic on this one, I bet. The bloggers all love to talk about this one. I think I saw it less than a year ago, and remember loathing every minute of it (and I do mean I didn’t think had a single redeeming moment), and by now I can’t even remember scenes people reference from it. I thought it was fuckiing hideous. But a lot of people were really interested in it, so they’ll be over. I don’t actually think culture is stupider than it used to be, or rather I think it has stopped being in the last year or two. And that does have to do with ridding ourselves of the Bushies–they were culturally indefensible insofar as they cared not a whit for any of it. Whatever else, the Obamas have changed that idiot tone. My impression is that there are ways around idiocy that are opening up, but I do agree that most of the decade was perfectly ludicrous. I mean, by now, phrases like the End of History don’t have nearly as much punch as they did in, say, 2005.

  2. traxus4420 Says:

    southland tales is really bad by any conventional measure. there is however a bid for its being ‘revolutionary’ in the sense outlined above, where boring old ‘good taste’ can’t touch it. while i have the right kind of masochism to find aspects of the film enjoyable, and interesting overall, i can’t board that particular spaceship. it’s ed wood for the new millenium basically — i hear ‘the box’ is just as horrendous.

    don’t think culture in general is stupider, just that there’s a funny sort of focus on it, or on the failure of thought, in some areas that has a ripple effect into where you wouldn’t expect to find it. the next part is on 2009 so we’ll see if i surprise you.

  3. “don’t think culture in general is stupider,”

    maybe not stupider, but there are new kinds of stupidity that are wholly dependent on mass media…the reaction that can be stirred by the phrase “death panels”, the way “socialism” or even “state” is used (equality? like out the toilet?), and remember that Simon Critchley talk about Obama at the new school you posted? and the bizarre reaction of the crowd (resentful, frightened, quietly panicked) to the one guy who broke form and pointed out how impossibly naïve and childish the whole performance had been? “like Dr. Phil”? That kind of stupidity is really new and really seems to be caused exclusively by for profit mass media.


    at about 01:15

    the embarassment of critchley is natural, and its unpleasant to see someone exposed like that (including not only Obama but Bush or Cheney); but the audience groan is real pain, they really are in pain at the disturbance of the happy talk show atmosphere of mutually flattering, vacuous, reassuring happy chatter. Like Montel Williams bringing up the war and spoiling the heath ledger death chat.

  5. just updated the post to make what i was vaguely gesturing at toward the end more concrete. not sure why i didn’t think of it before.

    an “update” of camp, not just a repetition — because now, i think, it’s possible to dispense with that minimal critical distance that camp requires (despite not being critique), the sense of innate superiority evident as a license to slum. it’s sort of hip to call The Dark Knight or even Southland Tales a masterpiece with a straight face. despite the fact that this is a performative contradiction — if the substance of the claim is that the film or pop philosophy text is a (convenient?) recapitulation of what is rather than a comment or judgment upon it, or investigation of it, so that it does not stand apart, then there is no trace of transcendent authorial ‘mastery’ and thus no masterpiece. the system of masterpiece-production then becomes truly collective by forgetting the old requirement to argue based on evidence (the presence of a mysterious creative master proved by features of the text). there are just these agreed-upon signs and environments that provide their own menu of ‘logical’ conclusions and appropriate behaviors dependent only on personal style. in other words it is a form of obedience, like what happens in the critchley talk, or as nostalgics like me might like to call it, stupidity.

    “Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.”

  6. if I can call it that,

    No, you may not call it that (lol), but it’s one of the better sections, I was just about to say ‘that’s so much better than Sontag’s’, she’s got all this OTHER shit that is always inevitable with her, which proves her own good taste, including her own ‘good taste in camp’. This stinks. In fact, I have never read a single thing of hers that did not have a Stinking Section. The parts that are most stupid are about Hemingway, whom she calls ‘bad’, as if you would automatically see her point (all you have to do is read one of her own unbearable novels to know why she’d hate Hemingway), and how one knows to ‘appreciate Garbo rather than such types as Virginia Mayo’. I even think she said something about Mozart being camp. He’s not. Not EVER. But I haven’t reread, so correct me if I’m relying on dementia memory (will help me seek help with symptoms, get second opinion, etc.). She always had a lot of talent, and somehow managed also to be graceless and a bore, which parts do not qualify as High OR Low Camp.

    Update End is not fully clear to me, but i get some of it.

  7. “the sense of innate superiority evident as a license to slum.”

    yeah, and I think specifically the quality of the “innate superiority” is adulthood, maturity. The camp appreciation of a lunchbox differs from the appreciation it is designed for by maturity.Camp appreciation (of childish things, of things for children or from one’s childhood fashion cycle) presumes an adult subject, who is exercising judgement which is also tapping memory. This kind adulthood as the norm, an adulthood capable of making judgements independent or partly independent of mass media stimuli and prods, has basically been abolished.

  8. traxus4420 Says:

    b swash – yes, one does have to be selective with sontag – there’s also the part where she pretends not to essentialize a ‘homosexual sensibility’ and a ‘jewish sensibility’ but then does that turns a number of people i know off of this essay. a specialist in existentialism and feminist theory i remember said once that she could have been a true (by which i think she meant ‘european’) intellectual, the american simone de beauvoir, but let herself get distracted.

    alphonse – i would have thought the superiority is inextricable from a sense of superior class, as taste in a way that’s semiautonomous from socioeconomic status. the entertainments that are of childhood and ‘for’ children and adolescents are at the same time ‘popular’ — their marketing is hegemonic, they don’t ‘exclude’ anyone from enjoyment, except snobby PC elites — that they are now capable of winning oscars and being the subject of academic essays is a kind of populism. the forms of judgment that could maintain the inherited structure of aesthetic criticism belong either to a harold bloom-ian conservative defense of high culture or an adornian left defense, both reactionary. so now we have to plug mass culture into these forms of critique that as i think you said somewhere before were designed for modern/modernist classics like flaubert and joyce and it’s llike taking a ferrari to a can of coke. in my opinion it’s to keep alive ‘intellectualism’ as a role/personal brand/status/profession by accepting its takeover by mass media. because it and all its attendant functions (culture journalism, academic criticism, etc.) are losing their ability to justify themselves in any other way.

  9. Buck Swash Says:

    “the sense of innate superiority evident as a license to slum”

    One does not need license to slum, slumming is in itself a good very often, it’s a matter of HOW you slum, not THAT you’re slumming. And ‘innate superiority’ is to be found in literally every phenomenon that exists where more than one person is in evidence.

    ‘it’s sort of hip to call The Dark Knight or even Southland Tales a masterpiece with a straight face. despite the fact that this is a performative contradiction —”

    But despite the fact that these particular examples are (at least to me) not the best uses of the Slumming Technique, it is basically an advantageous thing (although I didn’t see the Dark KNight and don’t care to). This is simply not taking the slumming FAR ENOUGH. You have to be able to remember, as I once did, an old and then-famous tranny ballet dancer talking about a movie based on Harold Robbins as ‘being a good movie’. It was generally thought to be dreadful, but in saying it was ‘a good movie’, he was (despite being an impossible person who did nothing after awhile but go to openings of clubs like The Red Parrot or dance all night stoned at 12 West) NOT trying to be hip, nor was he trying to slum. He just was making up his own mind. I learned much more about how to do this myself from his remark than another guy’s, whiich was that he ‘never read reviews’. Useful too, but not profound.

    There’s some of this attitude in the book of mine I gave you. I like some bad movies for personal reasons, but you do have a point that this ‘hipness of calling trash a masterpiece’, instead of just enjoying it, is just ‘another club’, as it were, made–and never more than just temporarily–as a sort of counterculture Establishment, but without the guts to ‘go its own way’, and this is where the bloggers again are perfectly tedious: They tend, to take an example, to form little temporary constellations, in which they set out the new ways they will view a film, as we recently saw some do with ‘Inglorious Basterds’ (which gets WORSE AND WORSE the further I get from it, btw), and you see them already developing the new terms of the ‘hipness’. Hilariously, they hadn’t noticed that there is nothing except a sort of ‘internet-cafe nerd jouissance’ that can possibly be developed from such a total piece of shit as IB, but yes, it’s a demographic.

    Now, as much as our dear, dear friend (lol, although he is anyway) is the most obnoxious person I have ever met, he NEVER does this. His judgments, like mine, are always first-hand. His greatest error (at which I work diligently along with The Spirit of Arpege to help analyzie, probe and correct) is making some sort of mental block against classical music and then wondering the fuck why that pisses me off. But if you say too much about his absolute love for ‘Battlestar Galactica’, he is deeply hurt and takes it personally. That’s so sweet, I think, but if that sounds at all condescending, I can assure you that it isn’t.. Of course, now that I’m marrying Northanger, we won’t have such problems. And when HE writes about Asia Argento in ‘Boarding Gate’, he is talking outside all discussion of it. I’m sure this, as well as that extraordinary writing which is totally effortless, that makes me so fond of him, but that doesn’t mean it excuses his accusations of faux-aristocrat on me and The Spirit of Arpege for truly liking opera and ballet, not ‘tryng to be elitist’ by liking it.

    But the advantages are excellent when you learn how to slum BY YOURSELF, not in some fucking little theologians’ club. I hope, by the way, that he’s managed to get his tuition together by now.

  10. Buck Swash Says:

    This kind adulthood as the norm, an adulthood capable of making judgements independent or partly independent of mass media stimuli and prods, has basically been abolished.

    Love this use of ‘abolished’.

  11. Buck Swash Says:

    This is off-topic (I realize I rarely am guilty of that, so permit this little liberty), and you’ve probably seen it, but if you haven’t you have got to. I haven’t read anything so hilarious in a long time, especially the stirring opening feature (or teaser, I don’t know which it is). Upon reading it, I realized that the single thing all of my most kindred blawg-bitches have in common with each other is an ARDENT LOATHING of Slavoj. I mean, DID you see those things that Jodi posted about Mladen Dolar’s good taste (now that’s NOT off-topic, okay, wait a minute, I go and fetch zeesss…. mais oui, here it is:

    Simply the grossest and MOST STUPID thing I’ve ever read. Here the total embarassment the man is is revealed, because here I know what I’m talking about. He comes across as some toffe-nosed nouveau-riche wannabe who is planning to take a course in Wine Connoisseurship. I couldn’t even believe it when I was reading it: this shit sets out the ‘terms of good taste’ in High Culture, specifically mentioning the 9th Symphony. I mean, my fucking god, how could anybody not read this and see what a pompous fool he is? And we see that it’s a ‘sign of good taste’ to prefer ‘minor works’, as stupid a phrase as I’ve ever heard. Oh yes, ‘major works’ really just ought to be scuttled. Plus, Mr. Dolar knows how to appreciate arcane Schubert. but MAINLY, it is not even about Mr. Dolar’s connoisseruship, it is about Zizek’s percaiption of Mr. Dolar’s connoisseurship. You’ll notice he doesn’t venture a SINGLE ‘taste of his own’ like that. What if it was WRONG? What if he looked like a FOOL? Well, he is, but so what. Who do you think he should consult to find out how you can appreciate Bach in a ‘relevant way’, while still keeping your finger in some wealthy dowager’s salon plans (although I wish him luck in that, those types are usually looking for something else…) Cowardly little creep.

  12. ” the forms of judgment that could maintain the inherited structure of aesthetic criticism belong either to a harold bloom-ian conservative defense of high culture or an adornian left defense, both reactionary”

    yeah but the forms of judgement necessary to assess the place of the aesthetic itself are not reactionary and have something traditionally to do with maturity, with the ability to resist the immediate appeal of the superficial and sensational. Camp is not just saying the barbie dolls are as wonderful as the michelangelos – mainly it’s granting an excessive importance to them both and even more to the intensity of one’s own displayed interaction with them. Camp requires some awareness of an alternative relation to these things and mainly to people (Sontag makes the point that camp is about taste in “people and things” as if there is no distinction of importance).

  13. the reception of Inglourious Basterds showed how well camp and adorno go together now. all the fans celebrated it in a basically camp pose but then felt the need to laboriously explain the hackneyed reflexivity of the finale as an ideological subversion working as Adorno might have said it would; look around the web, there are endless “explanations” of the cackling nazis as performing the classic modernist yadda yadda and ‘exploding war movie conventions’ and in fact putting an end to violent action cinema. Just the kinds of grandiose claims Adorno would made for this or that piece of sculpture or music he liked. And we discover really that the camp feature – that you’d make these claims sarcastically, but the sarcasm woulfd be faint and be inderstood to only enhance the claims – is there is Adorno too, just not as obvious as with more overtly camp postures than his.

  14. Sontag : “two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony” What she neglects to add is that this is two ways to describe (and two moods of) Drama Queenery. It’s consumption/shopping as the richest possible human emotional and intellectual experience. That objects that are necessary accesories for the performance of this jewishness and this homosexuality have a ranking may be important but what the ranking is really doesn’t seem to matter.

  15. Buck Swash Says:

    Okay, I’m gonna be a real bitch and pick out my favourite parts of this post, exquisitely introduced, replete with references to CD-ROM, by Adam Kotsko, who is attempting to ‘arrive’. We’ll skip deconstructing his offering, however, as there is now ‘by way of comment’ I find pressing.

    ‘But how else could we have heard about the theories of someone from a country which no map knew,’

    While we know the pathetic fallacy is not pitiful, this one is, and in spades too, because on top of it not capturing our empathy, it also fails to be truthful in the least. Dejan saw many maps of Slovenia and possibly even street-by-street ones of Ljubljana, before being deported to the Netherlands. And the REST OF US saw the fucking maps no later than the early 90s, for chrissake. I am still thoroughly enjoying, all by itself ‘what no map knew’.

    “Is not the Nom du Père of us bloggists…Žižek? The man who enjoys.”

    This also is not true. While I do agree that these ‘bloggists’ deserve precisely this and only this blog-only creature as their ‘Nom du Pere’, Zizek does NOT enjoy. He is incapable of it, and his Exquisite Perception of his friend Mladen Dolar’s highly refined tastes if proof of it. He let Mladen take the fall in case he made an error in how he wanted to advertise his goddam taste. He did once admit to liking ‘The Sound of Music’, and Wagner too, He is like a Camp Consellour, and I DON’T mean the kind of Camp we’re talking about, now do we? I mean the Summer Camp sort, full of all sorts of little media studies types full of jelly Beans and even Kum ba Yah, m’Lords

    ‘As proof of this, imagine how horrible it would be if Žižek actually blogged? It would be as if Flaubert made talkies.’

    Just frightful. It would like that time I had to be hospitalized when Shirley MacLaine did a TV movie, No matter that it was a miniseries based on her appallingly silly ‘Out on a Limb’, and that she says ‘I am God’ in it. That kinda thang just ain’t fittin’ (lol) And the SUBTLETY of saying ‘talkies’ instead of just ‘movies’. Wow. I am fucking a-swoon. Was this guy just trying to insult Norma Desmond? I think that really was uncalled for; after all, it’s even more up in the air what happened to Norma after she ‘got her closeup’ than it is what happened to Blanche (strict insane asylum).

  16. Butch Cazza Says:

    Hi, traxus. having a blast in Hollywood, although it’s cold here too. ONly one sunny day thus far. John said ‘the hotel looks perfect’, then our other friend said it looked worse than the worst Holiday Inn. But that didn’t surprise me, he’s not the only one likes to eat at Starbuck’s. I know this is inappropriate, but naturally i don’t know how to access my email on the hotel owner’s computers, so I couldn’t email you.

    Surprised this thread got stopped so abruptly. All best with your own holidays.

  17. traxus4420 Says:


    As the need for poor laborers in the increasingly tight writers’ market to produce signs of effectiveness increases, it becomes an easy call to write about something to which a wide readership can relate. Why devote a thousand words to something only other intellectuals care about, when you can write about The City and scoop up a bunch of web trawlers who will go look at anything to which that brand is applied?

    It’s no sin that educated people are less embarrassed by their downscale cultural choices than once they were. Why be sheepish about the fun junk you enjoy? But as more people are moved by economic or emotional necessity to actually write about it, this post-modern pride leaves a growing wake of literary detritus. Now we don’t just have the fun junk, but junk about the fun junk — which is less fun. It’s the difference between a music festival and the mountains of litter than accumulate in its aftermath — culture vs. cultural slag.

  18. […] our presiding sensibility? A provocative series on ‘The Aesthetics of Stupidity’ starts here and continues here, at American […]

  19. Now I am going away to do my breakfast, when having
    my breakfast coming again to read additional news.

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