During the second round of the 1974 epic boxing match billed as the Rumble in the Jungle, Mohammad Ali leaned extraordinarily far back upon the ropes as George Foreman relentlessly bludgeoned Ali’s body and arms. It looked much like the devastating beating Ali took at the hands of Joe Frazier in 1971. Foreman’s notoriously powerful punches were sure to do Ali in as he languished on the ropes round after round. But in the eighth — with Foreman’s stamina sapped — Ali got off the ropes, and went on the attack, winning the bout with a knockout. He called it the “rope-a-dope.”
I feel worked over — not knowing if I can keep up the pace of the caffeine infused all-night drift through a world-wide cataloging of every failure of imagination — large and small — the war, disease, simple stupidity, the latest meme designed to bring a smile all the way to your eyes — brought not only into your living room, but also the kitchen, the bedroom. It seems we&rsquo—re always peering deep into our glowing box, trying to sort out the trouble and hop to the next possible potential of some game-changing inspiration in the incessant production-line flow of recycled mediocrity. But the troubles are never through. The work is never done. That breakthrough — that genius sabot insight never comes.
But the metaphor of production-line work — already passé when McLuhan made us aware of so many similarly irrelevant tropes — is based on psychological responses and concepts conditioned by the former technology — mechanization — of the factory. There is something comforting in the nostalgic ease with which Lucille Ball or Charlie Chaplin revealed the absurdity of Fordist efficiency, the worker as a mere appendage of the machine. Although laughable even then — that was a time in which the worker still had a genuine role to play; being more than an option cheaper than automation. That time is gone.
I feel over worked. But I’ve never worked at the mill. I’ve never done a 12-hour stint keeping pace with cogs and conveyer belts. I’m not being over worked. I’m being worked over — as we all are — not by a craftwork mechanized pace that drives us to exhaustion — but by an alluring rhythm — a rhythm that can at once lull us into acquiescence while at the same time keeping us off balance — all the better mobilized for each permutation of familiar themes. We are mesmerized by the rhythm of electrostatic transmissions coded through glitches of the cybernetic network and the fragments of old media. Cycling through neoclassic postmodern motifs destructured and reformulated into predictably surprising combinations — this rhythm — this aesthetic — makes us move —and more importantly, buy. Consumers at heart, the rhythm sucks us in and incorporates us more completely than any machine ever could. Somehow thinking that we are breaking free from the autonomic conditioning of a youthful wasteland, we wait in eager anticipation for the next issue of a magazine devoted to the pure form of advertising —though in its pages there is none to be found. It makes our consumer heart skip a beat. Like Victorians who wouldn’t dare indulge in such an unsavory act — but nonetheless cannot stop talking about it — we swoon, sway and jerk with the rhythm of the spliced (dis)tasteful image juxtaposed by words of a hopeful, anxious, elliptical cant — breakdown and breakthrough.
I get the breakdown. Where’s the breakthrough? We talk and all the while we’re being worked over. And this is no massage. This is a beat down. In the expanded edition of his vintage Politics and Vision, Sheldon Wolin argued that the particular rhythm of our contemporary aesthetic has been put to expert use by the new corporate form of governance he called “inverted totalitarianism.” Perhaps Wolin really put his finger on our fatal flaw when he suggested that the “cascades of ‘critical theory’ and their postures of revolt, and the appetite for theoretical novelty, function as support rather than opposition” to capitalism, because this sort of frenetic, syncopated, decentering only “encourages its rhythms.” Like a prizefighter — agile, yet made of solid, consolidated muscle. The centralized corporate entity gets in step with our fancy footwork — bobs and weaves into every new channel of communication and community, coopts every sophistication of critique, adopts the most non-hierarchical, horizontal stance of organization and deployment — moving with the rhythm — adapting the rhythm to its own purpose — waiting for the opportunity to unload its notoriously devastating punch — coming in on the trash talker of dissent — Muhammad Ali stumbling back on the ropes, body blow after wicked body blow — pummeled — worked over completely.
I don’t want to go down on the ropes. Where’s the rope-a-dope? Where’s the rope-a- dope?!