How Does One Appreciate Everything?

Mass media culture produces all forms of dilemmas: politically, economically and morally. Timothy Mitchell is of the opinion that mass democratic movements were only really ever possible because of and formulated through the production of coal. The designs behind the age of oil are exactly what has inhibited democratic culture and movements so successfully from the 1940s onwards, and likely what new social movements worked to subvert. I don’t bring this up to display my political theory bona fides as much as to suggest how easily we absorb the dictates of the world around us that even someone truly questions their predicates, the most staunch communists, atheists and nihilists can’t but help to at least initially reject them.

I woke up this morning to do some research, and found myself with a desire to listen to The Band, before quickly becoming distracted by the idea of listening to Prince’s original recording of Purple Rain – a classic, which is shockingly hard to find on the internet. I’ve been getting more and more into Prince’s back catalogue as of late, and beyond Purple Rain, 1999 and Dirty Mind there are some absolute classics. Maybe this is displaying my relative naivety, as Prince has always been an incredibly popular act with many successful records, but it still is a shock to listen to Controversy for the first time. It need not necessarily all be fantastic, but the raw energy, musicality and idealism behind Prince’s music is still staggering.
Is this even saying very much? Prince is a great artist and has sold many records; he’s one of the biggest names in American music and influenced almost everybody alive in R&B. He has a lot of records behind his name and many more under protégés and pseudonyms, one could spend a lifetime trying to discover all there is behind the enigma of the Purple One.
Yet this is precisely the point: one could easily do that, but is this a life worth living? At what point do we have to reconsider the forces of the posterity and the internet and reconsider precisely how we consume our art, media and entertainment? Visual arts and philosophy have long been lampooned (although predominantly celebrated) in their worshipping of the works of dead white men, and to a fair extent we do attempt to deal with the works of the present: there exist countless contemporary art galleries (which don’t only deal with abstractionist art but do actually feature ‘normal’ visual arts like paintings), and given the somewhat personal nature of philosophy, it is inevitable that we discuss the works of living authors: see Žižek, Butler, or even somebody like Hilary Putnam. Can the same really be said for music? What precisely is there to stop me going through Prince’s entire discography, in some vain effort to achieve true Princiosity?
Of course for many of the young this is precisely what must be avoided: we can certainly dig the albums of our parents but we shouldn’t let them define us. This is certainly true on the surface, but I find that in practice this is often too newly focused. Of course the music charts-based radio stations are hardly anybody’s idea of culture, but one also worries if there is a particular cult of the new in ‘youth’ radio stations. In attempting to be open-minded, they often discursively cultivate a particular form of sound, one which new acts themselves undoubtedly reproduce. There’s no panacea of the new, no point at which we really cut off the influences of the past.
Yet is this not exactly what the creators of these past masters would have been consuming? I recall a moment, likely four years ago by now, in which my drum teacher, discussing his idol Tony Williams, confessed that it is very likely he’s listened to more music than Williams ever did in his lifetime, probably several times over. Yet the man is no slave to Williams, condemned to endlessly repeat Emergency! over and over in his brain, in his sticks. (For the record, Emergency! would be a terribly trippy way to conduct one’s self.)
Perhaps this speaks to the power of creativity over pure consumption. Many of us are ‘fans’ of music without being musicians, or at least active ones, and perhaps it’s in the act of synthesisation that we can truly transcend these differing narratives and trends of music. We often forget that creativity begets creativity more than style begets style. And when we create, we do create new pathways, capabilities and conceptions of the world. It’s somewhat unrelated, but this is brilliantly captured in this Young Turks video, by Karl Rove of all people.

Of course we’re not all songwriters, and one needn’t necessarily pick between two modes of consumption. It’s very easy to leave the radio on during the day and put a record or a CD on at night. We can even listen to Prince on the way to a gig featuring live, local music. While there is so much music surrounding us at every moment, there is seemingly no choice but to follow Simone de Beauvoir: acknowledge the ambiguity, understand that the world will never quite make sense to you and then proceed to act anyway. At the end of the day, music is going to change in ways we can’t even begin to appreciate it. We will never be able to understand all of it, and any attempt to do so will end up marginalising those forms we don’t consider music – rap, electronic, metal, jazz and classical all particularly suffer in this vein. If I like Purple Rain, I like Purple Rain. As long as I don’t fool myself by pretending that it’s anything more, maybe that’s winning.

On Asylum Seekers, Justification and Morality

I’m going to talk about refugees. I’m not going to talk about boats, I’m not going to talk about detention centres, and I’m not going to talk about human rights, international conventions or the United Nations. In reality, as much as we claim to care about these issues, they bare little reality to what actually concerns and motivates the half of the population that opposes successive governments’ policies towards asylum seekers. When people quote statistics, recall dates and use legalistic language, they seek to justify an argument that they have already aligned with. To tell you the truth, most of the time when people use figures in written arguments I tend to suspect that they insert them into pre-written articles.

I don’t really want to talk about all of this, because up until six months ago, like most people in Australia, I had never met an asylum seeker. Incidentally, it was at the same event that I also first met an Indigenous person. I want to stress this, because we must never at any point forget this: physically, economically and politically, what happens to asylum seekers lies out of almost all of our lives that we cannot begin to claim to be affected by it. I met an asylum seeker, who was an interesting person; I ate, drank and went to bed. My life wasn’t changed at all. Why pretend it does?

I feel that many arguments made about how important this issue is tend to exaggerate our own individual importance, as if there’s some kind of debate that we need to win, using legal opinions from international agencies and even Treasury statistics. These arguments can’t be made in anything but bad faith: these issues just don’t affect us in this way. There’s no reason for us to care for the reasons that are stated. It’s a waste of money, sure, but it’s not that much money. It annoys our international allies, yes, but it doesn’t annoy them that much. It distracts from the other business of government, yes, but it doesn’t distract from it that much. Even the mainstream media occasionally lets slip of the fact that this issue is a relatively minor one. To argue strongly from these bases is misguided at best.

Yet it is obvious that we care. There is something about this issue that is so visceral: it could never have otherwise been so politically important if a significant majority of the population didn’t care. The fact that 40-50% of the population abhors it is likely what aids the conviction of the 50-60% in its necessity. It is a proven election winner and government toppler. And all over an issue which less than 1% of the population experience in their day-to-day lives.

For realistically, the only experience any of us have ever had with this issue is through television and newspapers. I recall a moment in 2009 in which ‘boat people’ had once again become a political issue. I recall with great sadness, the utter despair that rang deep within my soul at the prospect of facing this issue once more. I had thought we were well and truly beyond it. And little did I know how far down the rabbit hole we were still to go.

It is this moral dimension which is what we choose to never explore. There’s a very profound emotional violence which occurs when one is the unwitting conduit of violence. Sometimes it’s more direct: we as Australians have directly benefitted from imperialism by the very land on which we build our mega-houses. Yet at other times it has less meaning. Somehow even the barbaric nature of imperialism is at least comforting in the sense that it provides some form of narrative. But how does one oppose the violence of (for example) the My Lai massacre with any degree of articulation? There of course was a meta-narrative: America and its allies (including us, of course) were opposing Asian peoples’ self-determination, and they more or less succeeded with regard to Vietnam. Yet nothing truly explains what transcendent violence occurred that day. It’s raw, it’s ugly, and any attempt at justification – good or bad – belies the extreme moral truth of the situation.

It tries to make sense where there just isn’t any. When we knowingly deport people to certain torture and death, when we jail children for years, when we turn blind eyes to our instigation of riots, there is certainly some governmental reason behind this, certainly. In terms of achieving policy outcomes, it makes sense to implement these decisions, primarily through demeaning ‘boat people’ and acting as some form of ‘deterrent’. Yet behind this? What reason is there to do this? What threat do these people offer, what meaning do their lives have vis-à-vis ours? There lies nothing. No reason. No argument. Just a policy.

Yet this is precisely the opposite of what we see in the arguments of Labor, refugee advocates, human rights lawyers and even the Greens. They give this policy a reason, if a negative one. The Coalition’s policy (formerly Labor’s) is bad because it ‘alienates Australia in our international relations’. It ‘diminishes our credibility’. It ‘doesn’t meet our obligations’. It ‘costs us money we can’t afford’. We are against it because. Every time we use this word ‘because’ we cowardly shirk the honest truth, one which we’re incapable of expressing: we are against this because we don’t want to live in a country which does this. We are against this because it is moral suicide. We are against it because it is ethically unjustifiable. We are against it because it feels bad and we want it to stop. We’re against this because we are. We just are.

Every system of ethics starts from some absolutes, but damn near all of them include the idea that torture and murder are wrong. There is no because. There just is.

At the end of the day there is little we can really do ‘for’ refugees. They’re just people like the rest of us. Is there that much you can really do ‘for’ any other stranger? At any rate, they don’t need things done for them, they need things done against them to stop. We need to do less, not do more. These are capable people, not wards of the state, at least not until they’re wound down and deliberately manufactured to be, courtesy of our corporate partners at Serco and Transfield (and everybody’s favourite mob at G4S). How can we even begin to contemplate the idea of raising our children in a world in which such monstrosities are not only permitted, but actively condoned?

Unfortunately what has been proven is that simply being angry and upset by this issue won’t change very much. There’s a profound impotence at foot, when we march in the streets. I don’t wish to attribute any causal reasons for this, but perhaps we could begin by at least properly understanding why it is that we want to do something in the first place. We should at least recognise as sickening is the need to consult statistics and international bodies to distort our very basic sentiment that what’s going on is fucked up and I want it to end. I don’t want to get up in the morning and read about the fifty people who drowned at sea and the hundred that we’re going to lock up. I don’t want to watch a riot on TV. I don’t want to hear about the deteriorating mental health, the self-harm, the suicides and the deported torture and murder. Enough.

 [I’ll write about Moral Debt another time. For now, enjoy some Martin Luther King.]