I’ve been to a couple of gigs lately, Don Walker and Bruce Springsteen. Both were supporting new albums that no-one is really that fussed about. Bruce played in front of one hundred thousand or so, and charged a couple of hundred dollars plus. Don played in front of about eighty and cost thirty eight dollars, including booking fee. Both practiced old school musicianship and valued the tight intensity of playing with other musicians. Bruce was lifted high and was carried across the mosh pit on a thousand adoring hands. Don got on his hands and knees, plugging and unplugging cables, trying to fix his sustain pedal. Both inserted happily self-deprecating anecdotes to mollify the gap between the staged and seated. Bruce provided chorus after chorus, taking the power back from loneliness as we all sang along. Don offered wan wisecracks and muttered that tomorrow it was supposed to be a sunny day. It would be true to say that Bruce used his celebrity and Don used his anti-celebrity for roughly the same purpose, to suggest that hope and love are redemptive no matter the injustice of circumstances.
Nothing much was surprising about either gig; I got what I went for. Sputnik, who accompanied me to both, saw other things. Mostly me offering up something akin to faith, me in the role of a believer. Me in the congregation. This is not something she sees all that often. I am cautious and reticent and contingent. Especially about big things. The world. People. Physics. Truth. Justice. Complexity is a maze of blind corners, and I’ve learned that my navigations of them aren’t entirely accurate. And as a nervous self-doubting navigator of complexity, a navigator faintly aware that there is every chance I’m wrong, I’ve got to come up with something to keep moving, some shifting and malleable sense of where north might be. This sense is the central hook of Bruce and Don. Their characters, especially their many flawed and incomplete blokes of a certain age, are bannermen for this sense of north: hope as a bulwark and rampart. A rhetorical defence against self doubt and the likelihood of error, the terror of error. Or that everything’s already too far gone to fix now.
I quoted Henry Giroux on hope some months ago, in another post, about how hope expands the space of possible. And it does, it says we’re not done yet and good may come. It says the future is an available space for projection of getting better, being better. Better selves, better others, better relations, better care. Better resistance, better dissent, better struggle. Better management of the almost complete inconsequentiality of our surprising presence.
Then, on twitter, an admirable fellow blogger (@HallyMk1) made the point that”we over-stress hope as whatever. courage is the thing. courage is an act of love. it presages hope.” Almost immediately I thought he was right, but then as a navigator in the maze I wasn’t sure. Hope, courage, love, redemption. I’ve been thinking about these a lot, pretty much since November last year: in waiting rooms and at traffic lights, in the dark of night and as I watch the cricket on the telly. I thought about them as I sang and swayed my way through Bruce and Don. I saw and heard them all around me. OK cool, I thought, good stuff all around. These good things will be sustaining, these good things will make it better. My bulwark and my ramparts seemed in good shape I figured. But over the summer they were all drawn down on pretty hard. Thrown down like stakes in card game I didn’t want to play and suspected couldn’t win.
Thing kept pressing against my head, all that good stuff: it was not enough.
Hope, courage, love, redemption. Not enough.
Resistance, dissent, struggle. Not enough.
Bruce and Don. Not enough.
Better. Not enough.
So what do you with that in the sweaty early morn? At what point does the failure of rhetoric to salve the friction of being represent my failure as a person? At what point does the failure of courage and hope reveal the obvious terror they were designed to obscure? And in the clear sighted face of that terror how do you not just stop? Call it quits. Finito. Line ’em up bartender and let me go until there’s no more. How? Head to some Walden’s Pond and make my apologies? Just join a crusty crew and let the currents take me where they might? Take a shopping trolley into the misty uncertainties of being off the grid? Or the opposite and get myself a herringbone suit and another couple of mortgages and just be the Sararīman I’ve fought so hard against becoming? Get myself an Audi or one of those nice Renaults, a few trophies for the sale of my conscience?
And where can I do that anyway? Are consciences rolled out like wares at a flea market, on blanket over concrete, for fanciers to acquire? Or swapped, briefcase for briefcase, in undercover shopping mall carparks. Or delivered by uniformed parcel people, signed for on little signature tablets with a plastic stylus, upon receipt of a direct deposit. But in the early morn, when kidneys and livers are busy at work, I’m too paralysed by terror to ever think that I could pull any of this off, one way or the other. There’s just me in my head. And there’s just the world out there. And there’s not a resolution. No teleology of transcendence. No big unity. Not enough.
So what do you do? Fantasy seems the obvious path. And so I have been reading a lot about Leninism. Since Dr Sternlove got cancer I’ve spent a lot of time in plastic hospital chairs reading Orlando Figes and Richard Pipes and Robert Conquest and coming to the conclusion that the Bolshevik project was a cult. Party. And like most cults there was a fair bit of hope, courage, love, and redemption involved in manufacturing the faithfulness that is required for a seventy year regime. That faith was fantastic, in both its sincere and faux manifestations. People believed, some still do. They had faith that the proper arrangement of things, materiality, could be provided through the investment of hope, courage, love, and redemption in the rhetorical frames of managing that arrangement of things. Even reading those critical works I saw lots that I admired, lots that made one feel loving toward the Russian Revolution. Even knowing that the twenty million were waiting their turn. And it’s not like the faith that the Bolshevik cult used is substantively different from the faith of late capitalism. After all the market is just a mechanism for the arrangement of things, what was sought through the Leninist state is much the same as is sought today: utopia through things. Sweating into my plastic chair over summer it didn’t seem to me that either system was any good. Cult after cult for making better. And looking at the effectiveness of these cults, especially the ongoing enterprises, seems to me that they’re not much more than tools to make ourselves feel better about shit knowing it won’t make much difference in the long run.
The world is too big for personal sacrifice to matter at all. Join any cult you like, they’ve only the weight of words for mass. Just like Bruce and Don, they’re there to mitigate whatever soul disquiet might come upon us if we allow it do so. I reckon I’ve allowed a bit too much in lately. But now it’s here. That ripple on a pond not made by the hands of men. Yeah. That one. What’s going to be adequate handling of that? It’d have to be a damn fine cult to get me to check my baggage, even supposing I could. It’s more likely that I’ll be in the crowds of blokes at gigs where these troubled narratives are rendered a show, a performance. An enormous ritual theatre of unease ameliorating the angst of the members of a cult so vast no one even knows they belong. Classic Debordian outcome I suppose, the only way out of the spectacle is to acknowledge membership of the cult, accept its inadequate absolution, to play along until suddenly redundant, and slip away from spectatorship.
Maybe I was doing that when Sputnik watched me at the gigs, heard me sing along and raise my fist in timely emphasis. Maybe. More likely I’ll take any comfort I can find, any foxhole is a good foxhole. Inadequate absolution is better than none. Even a temporary and anonymous solidarity is better than none. I kind of think that knowing that this is false consciousness, is a form of paying attention. A form of moral bricolage: scrounging the proper combination of bits and piece to make a life courageous and hopeful which, while not really making things better, tends an idea of space where that might become possible in some other incomplete present.