Death & life

Broken-hearted threnody; the crisis in embryo

Guy Rundle

Broken-hearted threnody

We are entering a period of apparent total power for the United States. Its military dominance is all but unassailable, and the recent increases in military spending will make it more so. Its proposed National Missile Defence system will not render it invulnerable, but may give it an enhanced sense of being such. Its dominance of the world economy and the international architecture of finance and trade is of a similar order. The ideology of 'free' trade is imposed on global demand (whether it be for finance or markets) while supply (whether it be of steel or labour) is regulated at will. The business cycle is regularised, or an attempt is made to do so, by the regularising of global consumption, through the spread of media technologies, their carriage of global branding and the shaping and channelling of personal consumption to an unprecedented degree. The culture is subordinated to the economy, and the economy is subordinated to imperial military power.

The process is completed when a whole series of American commentators and opinion formers who would have been described - by themselves and others - as 'liberals', fall in behind the new imperial vision, and confine their criticism to means rather than ends. This is not a matter of personal corruption, though there is plenty of that. It is a collapse of the logic of liberal dissent, of the possibility of imagining a genuine countervailing force that is not totally transformative. The expansion of a global culture industry, and the abolition of the barrier between entertainment and advertising, reshapes the subjects of the world as mirrors of their objects.

The small subclass who work in cultural production develop a distinctive 'meta-ideology' as a result of their social practice and formation. The content of this has some continuity with the 'bohemia' of old, but it is entirely bound within regulated cultural production and it experiences its own powerlessness and marginality through an addiction to ever more layered and self-referentially 'ironic' forms of expression. When there occur real events - such as the Twin Towers attack - that cut through all social strata, the ironic stance collapses back to its real (and in this case, imperial) ground zero.

When people of the 'Global South' attempt to exclude the process from an actual physical zone, often by recourse to reactionary and regressive ideologies, the response shifts from the cultural-economic to the political-military, and a similar process of regularisation occurs.

The current enormous jump in military spending is designed to make possible armaments that are now only science-fictive - robot 'troops' being the most lurid example, routinised use of tactical nuclear weapons the most terrifying. The prescience of Baudrillard's much derided observation that 'the Gulf War did not take place' becomes clear. The encounter between hi-tech disembodied weaponry on one side and actual soldiers and civilians on the other is not 'war' in any hitherto meaningful sense of the term; it is not a contest of human forces. To use the term 'war' for this process obscures a full understanding of what is really occurring. While wars will continue, they will be overshadowed by episodes of what we might call 'subordination' - the encounter between totally hi-tech aggressors and substantially embodied victims. Frustration at this totality drives people to terror tactics, and the increasing numbers resorting to them make their occurrence more likely. The threat or incidence of such terror, to varying degrees, makes attacks on civil liberties possible. Resistance is limited because a sense of citizenship as a dimension of selfhood has been eroded by the extension of 'advertainment' to ever greater regions of inner and outer life.