Cultural Traps & Organic Cheese (16 Maps of Hell Leftovers # 2)

Initially this scrap of cheese was in the original chapter 16 (now chap 14), and meant as part of the “exit.” It proved unconvincing, too much tell, not enough show.

Marshall McLuhan explained his most famous dictum, “the medium is the message” like so: the medium is like a burglar who uses a piece of steak—the message—to get past the guard dog in your house. If it requires a real steak for the burglar’s strategy to work, the question of whether culture is good or bad, is—as Lethem tries to argue—essentially the wrong question, because it can only ever be a mixture of both (which is what makes it “impure”).

Of course mileage may vary, just as other kinds of food beside steak can serve as bait for the guard dog. But the better the bait, the more likely the guard dog is to be neutralized; by which read this: the richer the aesthetic qualities of any given cultural artifact, the more our guard dog is put to sleep so our house can be burgled and we can receive the ideological program.

On the other hand, if the dog has just had a full meal, not even the tastiest of steaks will distract it for long. (Just as steaks vary, so do burglars; cat burglars treat your property respectfully, and leave no traces; meth-heads tear it apart and take a shit on your living room floor.)

The smart rat is the rat that never forgets that, if it wants free food, the deadly traps are never far away. It may develop enough skill to ease the luxury cheese out of the trap without springing it; but sooner or later its luck will run out. The smart rat never forgets the risk it’s taking every time it even goes near the trap.

The smart rat is continuously working on finding, or better yet creating, new forms of nourishment independent of the mechanisms designed to destroy it. In this analogy, the rat that prevails must, in the end and to an unknown degree, overcome its own nature, or rather conditioning. It has to turn away from the unearned convenience of kitchen-stocked food provided by humans who, after all, are not its friends. It must cease frequenting zones where traps forever lurk, and start to brave the compost bins and garbage containers outside.

Like the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar, it must learn to live on gruel. Beyond that, there is a whole world of opportunity waiting for the rat who is willing to forego luxury, develop its true resources, and return to the wild. It might miss those chunks of cheddar cheese for a while; but eventually it will adjust to an immeasurably freer, more abundant, and more satisfying lifestyle.

I’m not suggesting we become as rats, or hunter-gatherers living off the grid (though that time may also come). The nourishment we need is not of the nutritional sort but what sustains the soul, and the primary form of sustenance and support for the human soul is relationships.

Celebrity culture synthesizes an artificial form of (parasocial) relationship, not just in the cinematic simulacra it excretes to fertilize its global manure heap—the fetus fields of The Matrix—but also in the fabricated lives of the rich and famous as they are presented to the public (as eminently desirable), and in the pseudo-relationships that exist—holographically—between these Hollywood (or off-Hollywood, like David Lynch) cultural elite and we the proles who adore them.

We are back to the irresistible allure for the alienated of parasocial interaction, which is the essence of the Hollywood PSI-op. As Alyssa Termini writes:

“The coaching of audience attitude” means marketing that creates a loving, sincere, and admiring image for the persona. Coaching typically leads to spectators offering their allegiance to a persona because of his or her genuineness and honesty. The sincerity that the celebrity projects to fans makes spectators feel like they must aid the persona on their journey to success or help maintain an already successful career (p. 12).

What causes a star to shine in the celebrity constellations is the adoration of an anonymous legion. The one is raised up by a multitude that reifies its sovereignty, like the darkness allows the stars to shine, or shit brings flowers to bloom. The cost of this arrangement is that, for every star created, the mass is consolidated in its facelessness, its lack of inner light or momentum. It exists only to worship, imitate, and aspire to rise above, into the celestial spheres. The illegitimate hierarchy ensures not the realization of a dream but the endless perpetuation of a nightmare: factory life.

Yet unlike, say, Mexican peasants, movie stars are generally not known as the happiest people. Whether it’s Johnny Depp tearing up hotel rooms and beating his wife, Barbra Streisand treating the whole world like a menial worker, Christian Bale tearing into a crew member for standing in the wrong spot, Sean Penn punching out photographers, Russell Crowe’s serial assaults, or Bill Cosby drugging and raping women, the checklist for celebrity misbehavior and/or meltdown suggesting something less than a community of satisfied minds could take up a whole other chapter, and an especially prurient (if sickly entertaining) one.

(It would have to include Randy Quaid, Casey Affleck, Ben Affleck, Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Lindsay Lohan, Shia LeBeouf, Macaulay Culkin, Drew Barrymore, Val Kilmer, Marlon Brando, Sean Young, and Tom Cruise, just for starters.)

Ditto for outstanding figures in the arts who have self-destructed through an excess of misery, though whether it was intentionally, accidentally, the result of foul-play, or a mix of all three, we may never know.

In no particular order: Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman, David Carradine, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Jean Seberg, Michael Hutchence, Natalie Wood, William Holden, Janis Joplin, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Michael Jackson, Anna Nicole Smith, Margeaux Hemingway, Kurt Cobain, Richard Burton, John Belushi, Tony Scott, Jim Morrison, Brian Epstein, Lenny Bruce, Billie Holiday, Hank Williams, Bruce Lee, Charles Boyer, Tim Buckley, Nick Drake, Judy Garland, Tony Hancock, Sebastian Horsley, Howard Hughes, Margot Kidder, Alan Ladd, Jackson Pollack, Prince, Brad Renfro, Don Simpson, Mary Ure, Robin Williams, Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tennessee Williams, all crashed and burned with varying degrees of swiftness and intensity. So how exactly did we ever get it into our heads that theirs is, or was, an enviable lifestyle? Chalk it down to the programming.

Perhaps this—the ongoing effort to maintain the myth that our stars are “above us” and not below—is why Lynch’s happiness is so central to the mythmaking of Room to Dream [ref. to Outtake # 8 of 16 Maps]? The community provided by Hollywood is a dark and shady affair, a dysfunctional family, cubed, no more loving or nurturing than a Mafia clan. Is this why The Godfather is Hollywood’s proudest accomplishment: because it manages to turn the mob into the family we never had?

There’s room at the top, they are telling you still: but only if you learn how to smile as you kill. And it is desperately lonely at the top. The nature of stardom is to shine alone, surrounded by darkness. In space, no one can hear you scream.

But humans are already celestial bodies, and what makes a soul shine isn’t infinite space or the adoration of a faceless mass, but the direct, felt connection to other souls. It requires a locking on of awarenesses, by which we see and are seen, and thereby come fully into an experience of existing. It’s love, expressed and received, that allows us to experience our inner light, as a natural, spontaneous reflection or echo of the loving attention of others.

Uniqueness, paradoxically, makes us all equal; and our uniqueness is complementary, it’s meaningful only in relationship to others. Each soul carries part of the picture, and we only come to know ourselves by finding our place within the family constellation of humanity. Only then are we “activated,” lit up like a Christmas tree light according to its placement within the thread.

The aged cheese of the hero myth naturally evolves (or decays) into the processed cheese of the superhero lie, because the notion of a lone individual standing out from the herd via epic accomplishments—through sheer power and force—demands a super-imposition of the stellar being onto, and over, the many. Übermensch means overman. The contrivance of the divine right of kings to rule (and rape) illegitimately transforms a communal system, a network of souls, into a cold and sterile hierarchy, a stone pyramid maintained by slaves.

This superculture obliges each of us to aspire to ascending the pyramid, by our own efforts, to consolidate the growing conviction (which is a necessary defense against the terrible loneliness of such an arrangement) of being a separate, isolate, sovereign identity-self.

When we are pitted against the collective in this way, and defined by our opposition to it, with “the world” for the supposed prize, we sacrifice all possibility of sustenance, completion, or satisfaction. Love goes out the window, and the devil becomes the only company we keep. It is an impossible quest, a thirst that can never be quenched, and the primary quality of this “heroic,” Sisyphus-like existence is quantitative and not qualitative. Our sense of worth is measured in dollars and cents, by how well we compete within the system of idol worship: who gets to be a star, and how big and bright do they shine?

When our experience is of oneness vs. the many, neither ever wins, because the true nature of our existence is not found in isolate identity but in connection. The individual only truly exists in relationship to the collective (and vice versa), and the only way to become the One is by connecting to the All.

13 thoughts on “Cultural Traps & Organic Cheese (16 Maps of Hell Leftovers # 2)”

  1. nice Jasun – I recorded an album at a studio called Heliocentic in Peasmarsh. It was owned at the time by Elvis Costello and Chris Difford. Chris’ ex-wife ran the studio/farm and lived there with her 2 children along with the bands that recorded there. Chris would have dinner with us and the kids on friday nights. He’s friends with Paul McCartney and one friday night told me that when they hung out, Paul was often depressed, and would mope around saying things like, “I’ll never write another song like yesterday. What’s the point.” The dream is over

    • hi VVV

      was that Paul or Faul? 😉

      I looked up VVV thinking it had some special Latin significance, but all I found was The meaning of VVV abbreviation is “Transmit in Morse Code”.

      (it’s also 555)

      • Around the same time I had emailed Paul L (who sees certain triple and quadruple repeated digits in the most bizarre synchronicities and has 3 L’s in his name) that his music video had been compared to tracks on Paul Weller’s album Heliocentric. Sounding like Markie L. now.

  2. In my late teens, I was involved in amateur/student theatre. As much as I genuinely loved it, video production and Hollywood in particular was the main prize in my deranged imagination. I used to practice award acceptance speeches when inspired (think Rupert Pupkin). However, I could never complete them even in my imagination because I could never decide who to bring to the event or in what order to express my gratitude. The lack of harmony in my family was a major cause for concern. Who would take offence? Who actually deserves to be mentioned? Should I be magnanimous? The problem was so serious that I never completed my daydreams, not once. One would imagine that I would’ve clocked the cause for the need to daydream right there and then. I didn’t make the connection between daydreaming someone else’s promise of heaven and my need to escape the given circumstances. As a curiosity, I wonder how much time I’ve spent daydreaming about nonexistent events inspired by the big screen. The energy wasted is a whole other story.

    • hard to imagine a less likely cultural avatar for you than Rupert P, Ced, tho since he is the flip-side of Travis Bickle (who does fit), maybe not?

      Ironically, paradoxically, Rupert is both the closer approximation of everyman these days, and the more fully psychopathic expression of delusional id-entity syndrome (hence his fear of DIS-ing?).

  3. Oh, don’t get me wrong, Travis was one of my first heroes as a teenager. The most oversized poster I owned was of him with the iconic Mohawk bleeding with two guns pointing at the camera.

    On the other hand, I always had a soft spot for Rupert. It was the scene when he’s mother interrupts his delusions, and he shouts back like an adolescent: “Ma, I’m working! Please don’t interrupt me.”, that I noticed my sympathy (empathy?) for him.

    I rewatched the Taxi Driver many times, while the King of Comedy was to be avoided on most occasions. I rewatched the latter mainly when playing it to people who hadn’t seen it.

    I wish I never progressed from Bruce Lee and Conan the Barbarian.

    Interestingly, during the last Sunday event when Dave discussed our ancestral fear of going hungry, attacked, enslaved, etc., the opening of Conan came to mind. Thulsa Doom’s men murder and pillage Conan’s village and then behead his mother before taking them all into slavery.

    In all honesty, it was my own family history which first came to mind, but as I wasn’t a witness to those events, Conan did me a substitute.

  4. Christ being the person of the Tao, the true way of things, the person at the bottom, the valley, the natural path, the opposite of the hierarchy hell but beyond opposites so also at the top as self emptying love.

    Good stuff. Going to buy the book

  5. You’re so intelligent it’s so strange. I used to want to be intelligent in my early 20s, and now that I’m 31, I stopped having that endeavor about 5 years ago. My Schopenhauer book collects dust. Increasingly, it seems insane in how pointless critical thinking is in today’s world. To the point where when I see people having rational debates with each other it makes me cringe like as if these people don’t know what era they are in. And recently I’ve realized how this aspect of culture pushed me to become an angry contrarian. I don’t want to feel hatred for how stupid and insane people who do stuff are. I love normal people more and more because they do nothing other than live their mundane lives which is a million times better than what so many people do. They actively make the world worse with ideology. It’s the anti-human aspect of it that ironically fills me with violence in my heart towards them. Because it seems like everything is upside down. Everything is a lie, the so called compassionate and moral arbiters have no understanding of morality. In fact, I think activism is psychopathic behavior even though they say I’m the uncaring one. Psychopaths make a show of how much they fit in and how good they are. When I found out my intellectual mind is useless I stopped thinking and just felt anger. And now I’ve reached paranoia, deleting all my social media even though I’m most likely shadow-banned. Because somehow I receive no mentions from anyone anymore. Just angrily deconstructing what people say that make no sense to me. I’m deleting all of my internet data for fear of retribution. I plan to be more happy and humanistic. I think I fell into a trap. It reminds me of the Joker movie. I really think that Joker is the child of society, and when he created riots at the end of the film he became one with society. If you truly hate society for what it’s become and has done to you you should just walk away from it because that must be true rebellion. Society wants you to ‘werewolf’ and rebel against it, because that makes you part of it. Reminds me of the only quote I distinctly remember from J Krishnamurti: “Change can only come from outside society”. And as for ambitions, I went through that horrible phase and life is a lot more beautiful now. It definitely feels like connecting with humanity again.

  6. An anecdote comes to mind regarding unhappy celebrities: in the 90’s, living in Cambridge, MA, I was contacted by a high school friend who was working as an assistant for Sean Penn in California. She was wondering if I would consider being hired for a job, specifically to rent a truck to deliver some thousand or thousands of dollars worth of pennies to a photographer in Cape Cod, to whom Penn had lost a legal case (I am guessing for assault, but am not sure). This would be his payment of the settlement. It strikes me as such a small detail for Penn to get hung up on – giving a final little stab in the side with a miniature dagger to the papparazzi who had so provoked him. I thought the whole thing was amusing, but I decided not to take the job. Penn seems to be a complicated character – thoughtful, if irascible. Though that was 20-something years ago.

  7. I definitely sympathize with your ‘anti-intellectual ‘ O please what a waste of space ‘ ‘
    Please, can you stand up and tell me what was achieved?
    Use it or loose it.
    Ok Gotch ye. I get, I get really I do.

    But decidedly I choose, am choosing neutrality. Like / neutral. The car stays put, the engine doesn’t rev. I’ll save my gas for the hill coming up ( because you know they always do)

    Hey , it finally dawned on , Ive been black balled into oblivion, by NO COMMENTS.
    I should kill myself , but being we’ve got taste-y food left in the frig – no, it can wait.


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