A Manifesto for Artistic Pessimism

By Julian Langer


Romanian nihilist and pessimist philosopher Emil Cioran once wrote “only optimists commit suicide, optimists who no longer succeed at being optimists” and that “it is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late”.


In these short collection of words, this tragic thinker – who wrote books such as On The Heights of Despair and A Short History of Decay – speaks to something at the very core of life, especially within this culture – the need for sincere, honest and authentic pessimism. He wrote that “Chaos is rejecting all you have learned, chaos is being yourself” and, following from this, it is your-self I wish to appeal to in the words I present here.


“One must have chaos within to give birth to a dancing star” Nietzsche


The fact that the vast majority of films present a near totalising fatalistic optimism is abundantly obvious. Most films end with the desired conclusion to the narrative: with the hero surviving by the skin of their teeth; or the two beautiful people find love in a beautifully romantic setting; or the rebels narrowly avoiding Darth Vader’s clutches and obtaining the Death Star plans, whatever other example you care for.


And of course they do! Happy endings sell. When it is all said and done, people want things to “go right” and for things to fit within the desires of this cultures ideological narratives.


Situationist philosopher Guy Debord asked about film:

Do we simply watch the images rolling past, become happy or sad at the whim of the filmmakers, only to return to our regular lives without any effect on how we view the world and how we could possibly change it?”

In this question Debord raises the issue of the film watcher being a passive observer, absorbing the narratives of filmmakers, in such a way that it maintains everyday normality.


Through the medium of film, in most cases, the viewer passively consumes the notion that things do not need to change, because things will work out happily in the end. Batman, Frodo Baggins or Neo will come and defeat the Big-Bad, or the T-Rex and Raptors will kill the Indominus Rex.


Two questions come to mind though.


First, are things inevitably going to turn out for the best, or is that just an idea that enables individuals to participate in this culture without any thoughts regarding consequences?


Second, what is the purpose of art/film and are they supposed to affect the viewer in any particular way?


Starting with the second question, Oscar Wilde, in response to moral critics of his age, promoted “art for arts sake” and criticised the “monstrous worship of facts” within art movements. Perhaps Wilde is right and that art need not serve any moral purpose and should be done for its own sake.


This doesn’t mean art cannot hold egoistic instrumental value. In the philosophy of art, aesthetic cognitivists argue that art, particularly painful art, is valuable as a means of empowering individuals.


Perhaps, amorally, mediums such as film can serve as an instrumental means of empowering individuals around painful matters, like the idea that things will not turn out for the best: pessimism.


Antonin Artaud developed an approach to theatre called theatre of cruelty, through which theatre “wakes us up. Nerves and heart,” and through which we experience, “immediate violent action,” that “inspires us with the fiery magnetism of its images and acts upon us like a spiritual therapeutics whose touch can never be forgotten”. Perhaps film can serve as an immediate violent action which inspires a fiery magnetism, effecting the viewer spiritually and therapeutically.


Regarding the question of whether or not things are inevitably going to turn out for the best – whether optimism holds true – we should consider this in multiple senses. Existentialist, nihilist and absurdist philosophers, like Nietzsche or Camus, argue that ultimately everything ends in death and that all action is ultimately futile: a pessimist’s conclusion, though they all generally argue that there is personal/subjective/egoistic value in actions and the pursuit of meaning.


We could also look at the question from a non-philosophical gaze, looking at the environmental and socio-political situation where all paths seemingly lead to ruin: when the sixth mass extinction event and climate chaos pose significant existential threats to humanity and this culture, as well as the biosphere; where nuclear war and World War 3 become ever more possible situations. All of which paints a particularly bleak future, whether you value this culture or the biosphere.


I don’t know about you reading this, but pessimism feels like the more honest, sincere and authentic outlook.


Perhaps, in an egoistic aesthetic cognitivist sense, a pessimist cinema of cruelty would be valuable, as a means of empowering individuals to respond to, what postmodernist philosopher Baudrillard called the desert of the real – a real that is becoming increasingly bleak with every passing day.


Disaster and apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic films (such as The Matrix, Book of Eli, Elysium, 2012, Day After Tomorrow, Children of Men, War of the Worlds, I Am Legend, Armageddon, the Terminator series and other similar popular titles) all end on a hopeful optimistic note, where ruin is averted.


Films like V for Vendetta and the Hunger Games series, which take a generally leftist-revolutionary narrative, generally conclude with mass people’s movements being able to overpower the Big-Bad and winning out – perpetuating the idea that hopeful optimistic endings are really viable at this point in time.


Even films like Avatar and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, which take somewhat of an anti-humanist, anti-civ, radical-environmentalist narrative, end with things “working out”.


Perhaps radical film projects should draw from films like Apocalypto, The Road, Escape From L.A., 12 Monkeys, Knowing, The Time Machine, Survivalist, Into The Forest and TV series like Black Mirror, and adopt a pessimist cinema of cruelty approach. Maybe this can serve as a means of empowerment through discomfort, as the desert of the real becomes bleaker and bleaker.


I missed the opportunity to see the latest edition to the new Planet of the Apes saga, but look forward to being able to watch it on DVD or stream it online, as it is an interesting series. I am also personally looking forward to seeing the new Bladerunner film (and hoping it isn’t going to be another nostalgia porn let down). Both of these films hold the potential to be honest reflections of this culture and our current situation.


We’ll wait and see.


Images courtesy of: http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2014/09/v-vendetta-graphic-novel-best.html and https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/15819.Guy_Debord and http://www.learnliberty.org/blog/was-nietzsche-libertarian/ and http://planetoftheapes.wikia.com/wiki/Planet_of_the_Apes_Wiki


The Dystopian Utopia: Star Trek Discovery Previewed


By Hayden Cooper

Star Trek for many is the quintessential Science Fiction. It invented (or popularised) many of the things that now are staples of the genre; teleporters, shielding, warp speed, laser based weapons.
It is also the quintessential utopia: a world without pursuit of capital, with racial harmony, that can defeat any evil.
Utopianism fills a funny place within Science Fiction. Traditionally it has been argued that Science Fiction is merely a subset of utopianism. The goliaths of Sci-Fi theory have been extremely hostile to dystopian works being included, most notably 1984 and Brave New World.

Frederick Jameson

Jameson (Archaeologies of the Future proving a seminal text in the field) describes trends towards utopianism as running parallel to dialogues about politics. Jameson sees Sci Fi as a political movement in and of itself, built upon the desire to create a better world by drawing parallels with our own (and embellishing them).
However he sees it as a failed movement, much as how he saw communism. It should be noted he is specifically referring to the academic concept of “communism” that was popular in discourse during the early years of the soviet union, rather than communism as a political philosophy as we understand it today.
Anti-communism, much like anti-utopianism is worse than the movements they critique. He argues that we should aim for anti-anti-utopianism and anti-anti-communism. In practical terms, we should use our arguments with liberals to forge our own ideology.
Star Trek is inherently liberal. Fans of the show, myself included, preach of its radicality; but this simply isn’t the case. The show talks about a world without money, with racial harmony. Behind the scenes it had the first ever interacial kiss on screen; it had nonbinary characters; diversity was always the aim.
These radical aims are what made the show famous. Spock was placed in the show as a commentary on racial acceptance: he became so popular some cite the character as the reason for the renewal of the second season.
But Star Trek was never radical; merely it posed itself as radical.


New Designs for the Klingons have already left fans questioning the show’s direction

Behind the scenes PoC actors were forced out of projects (such as voicing their characters on the animated show). On screen most captains are white, militarist, men. Queer storylines are almost non existent, and those that exist are either executed poorly or done in sweeps week for ratings.
It is this liberalism that made the show possible in the world of capitalist television. Producers could exploit radicality for its marketability, whilst still keeping it safe.
Bringing this back to Jameson, Star Trek was highly dialectical due to how the show was run. It was based upon the works of Roddenbury (utopian/communist); shaped by executives (anti-utopian/communist); and often featured radical show writers arguing against the system that created the show (anti-anti-utopian/communist).
A great example of this is several episodes of Deep Space Nine where Sisko writes the story of DSP in the 1950s. As a black Sci Fi author he is denied credit, and he is told to rewrite his story to exclude a black main character. It is clearly a jibe at the television industry.

So what about where Star Trek didn’t fit this narrative? Plot lines seen on Deep Space Nine and later seasons of Enterprise were as close to radical as the show ever got. Harsh critiques of the Federations inherent militarism were shown with internal nationalist uprisings in the form of the Marquis; repeated war crimes were committed by the Federation (including genocide) and an unofficial secret police was revealed in the form of Section 31.
This is internal conflict in its highest form. Yet Spock and Picard proved more marketable. They appeal to liberals by preaching nonviolence; they appeal to leftists by espousing socialist rhetoric; but most of all they appeal to marketing teams for having a wide base of support. Sisko is an angry war criminal, and not least of all played by a black man. By whitewashing Star Trek as a show without conflict, the new showrunners have romanticised their potential for radicality whilst also accepting the (forced) liberal reputation and appeal of the show.

Images from: http://redshirtsalwaysdie.com/2017/05/05/why-is-cbs-hiding-star-trek-discovery-information/ and http://www.holbergprisen.no/en/fredric-r-jameson.html and http://www.startrek.com/database_article/star-trek-deep-space-nine-synopsis

Utopia in tofu: Simon Amstell’s Carnage

It is hard to think of too many modern day counter-cultures as derided as Veganism. Characterised by those on the right as a temporary fad without appreciation for the Hobbesian realities of existence, and by those on the left as a white bourgeois cause celebre which disingenuously attempts to align itself with more pressing emancipatory movements, it remains almost universally taboo to raise its concerns in polite discourse.

This is what Simon Amstell does, and, moreover, on that paradigm of mainstream cultural conversation, the BBC. His mockumentary, Carnage, is in every sense a Swiftian satire. It incites laughter only to challenge more strikingly the ethical impulses of its audience, and it constructs an alternative reality only to castigate more savagely the horrors of our modern society.

For Carnage – and the word adopts a biting contextual double entendre – is visibly ubiquitous. Amstell’s film spells this out obliquely: that we are butchering, raping and maiming other living beings at an unprecedented level; but more than this, the devastating consequences of our carnivorous glutton are becoming more an more evident. Footage of chronic obesity, climate disasters and epidemics are intersected with the fetishised objectification of animal flesh and milk in popular culture.


The film’s acerbic juxtaposition of the two only reaffirms their interconnectivity.
From this abjection, however, Amstell diverges from much mainstream fiction in not evoking the pastiched genre of dystopianism. This is not a satire which follows the analysis of Black Mirror, or Margaret Atwood, or any of the infinite fictional pronouncements of our post-Trump demise. Amstell claimed that Carnage was originally conceived of as a manifesto, and behind the often eye-watering comedy, the film’s polemicism remains its piece de resistance.

The definition of this Utopian piece is all the more effective in its relative novelty. Utopianism was thought to be dead at the feet of post-modernism, which sought to deconstruct all grand narratives of modernity’s distinctiveness. That dystopia arises from a similar sensibility has been ignored, for it remains a fictional space within which our masochistic reactions to societal inadequacies can absolve us of guilt.

We may as a species be destroying ourselves, but at least the Dystopian writers can mark themselves out as prophets, as those who saw the apocalypse on the horizon.
But this form of tragedy belies the truism it inversely affirms: that just as we can envision apocalyptic destruction through our present material situation, so too can we envision harmony.

Amstell’s imagination of the future is replete with images of communal amity, from the polyamorous youngsters frolicking in a field, to the more hard-hitting community group trying to deal with the grief of their former actions. What we see lies antithetical not only to our present culinary practices, but to the personal relations of modern neoliberal society, which continues to strip away such community spaces, and promote instead a hyper-consumptive individualist identity.

This provides the context for this modern re-emergence of the Utopian genre. The economic conditions which drive modern Capitalism are undergoing a historically unprecedented transition. The potential of 3-D printing, bio-engineered food and automised labour is the potential for an end to poverty, resource exploitation and the subjugation and oppression which it causes.

In Carnage, this new context of modernity is visualised sardonically, in the VR headsets and nut cheeses of Amstell’s utopia. The expansion of these new methods of production do not just extend to our cultural luxuries. The care, agricultural, service, medical, and construction sectors are all on the cusp of revolutionary transformations. With it, the need for arduous human labour is relinquished. It is a context of astounding possibility: so astounding, that it may even eradicate the oppressive nature of human’s historic relationship with other living beings.

Carnage is a comedy in the truest sense of the term. It is a conflict which carries within it the potential for resolution, not just of its imagined world, but of our reality too. What is reflected in its fiction is an ideological movement too significant and sizeable to not now also be considered a reality. Something is growing here, and as the film articulates, it cannot be confined by the terminology of veganism. But it has the potential to free us all.

Featured picture: https://www.thememo.com/2017/03/21/simon-amstell-carnage-review-veganism-diet-future-of-food/
Other images are stills taken from Carnage (2017)