The Eye of the Beholder: There is Never Anything New


A review of John Steppling’s new book, Aesthetic Resistance and Dis-Interest

By Paul Haeder

Source: Dissident Voice

it is through mimesis, (identification with the mirror image) that one gains a sense of unity, self-containment and mastery over the body. If that was all that there was to it, humanity would be condemned to dwell forever entombed in the hell of mirrors. However, the identification with an Other in the mirror opens out the possibility for symbolic thought.

— John Desmond, author, thinker, who is interested in the history of marketing; construction of knowledge in marketing; consuming culture; morality and marketing; advertising and public policy

The beauty of ideas and words and sculpting frames and philosophical groundings is that we in Western culture having nothing more challenging than the numbness of a consumer-wrecked world where crass hucksterism and financial voodoo wizardry – even with its nuclear tipped propaganda, surveillance and missile dragnet technological orgasm science serves up – pales in comparison to any tried and tested narrative grammar of idea wizards.

Yet, dealing with words now, we see, as one noted playwright and thinker attests, involves PR packaged thinking, possibly a flagrant fascism tied to what can be written (thought) and what cannot be (said).

The title to his book says it all, sometimes – Aesthetic Resistance and Dis-Interest – That Which Will Not Allow Itself to be Said. This is just out in 2016, by playwright, raconteur and philosopher, John Steppling, from the organization, Mimesis International. The book is a compilation of some of his blog postings, and not to denigrate the word “blog” to mean anyone and their uncle expressing anything out there on the world wide web.

Like stepping stones into Steppling’s mind, each essay is a revving reverberating call to mental action, as each essay follows the Introduction with more nitrous oxide pumped into each cylinder of the 12 cylinder motor of his mind: one, Narrative & Empathy; two, Magical Thinking; three, Pedagogy; four, Nothing is Art; five, The Impossible Playwright; six, Someone to Watch Over Me; seven, The Political Uncanny; eight, That Which Will Not Allow Itself to be Said; nine, The Hidden Narrative.

Here, Steppling drills down into the cortex of the American – European, white, patriarchal, Puritan and Elitist – brain, sort of the flash mob mentality we are downloading determinedly. He plugs holes in the tinny junk thinking and pseudo intellectualism hovering around academia, the So Called Liberal Media, the Corporate boardrooms, the waiting rooms at TED Talks 3.0, and the ER’s resuscitating the pop culture that doubles in the minds of the masters of consumption as true art (sic). It’s a violent country, the art is anti-art, and the world of the Imperialist, right-wing or leftie, is predicated on a Heart of Darkness destruction that Steppling decants into the incantation:

The unfinished and fragmentary now emerge as comments all by themselves. When the worst aggressions in society today are often those paraded as benign, or self branded as innocent, even curative, the default response must be one of disconnection. The age of marketing, fueled by Imperialist Capital, has obliterated ideas of belief. Ideas of evidence and trust in our own feelings are all the time under duress and coercion. Aesthetic coercion is the staple of a system of image and narrative control the erases the individual while unrelentingly trumpeting his triumph.

Mimesis conceptually and psychoanalytically is something Theodore Adorno, Robert Hullor-Kentor and Fabo Akcelrud Durao study as they break into the mind of the human condition under the duress of capitalism-hucksterism-market competition-cultural posturing in order to understand how we as thinkers and believers re-narrate when we read a novel or watch a film, as well as engage with poetry and theater. Steppling is looking at this sirocco of thought tied to art, and it’s only that, art, if it changes us somehow. Art can mean buildings, parks, ways entire city blocks and towns are laid out and made to be something more than a mess against nature or utilitarian. Or practical in the Puritanical way. Looking at the Palaeolithic rock paintings around the world, Steppling posits that these sophisticated and voluminous paintings are “exclusively mimetic participation in a magical object .. and that Neolithic artifacts represent a significant change of consciousness, and of the human relationship to the group.”

This short book delves into the heart of what it is to be human, what Pierre Janet (L’Evolution de la Memoire) says how we become the very beingness of “I” – Narration created humanity. This book is just a small sluice into the larger wetlands that spread across the more rarefied postulations of Steppling’s thoughts and comments, here, at this blog: John Steppling – The Practice of Writing – Theatre Film Culture).

Ironically, his most recent post talks about his youth, when he was born in 1951, Laguna Beach, where his mother worked at Woolsworth and father acted in community theater. Steppling looks at Charles Olson and his work in the Yucatan, the same year, 65 years ago, and in that looking back, Steppling unfragments the fragments of memory, youth, childhood, origin, which all boils down to a Western culture seeded with capitalism that is moved by destruction and the boom in the bust:

When Olson dug into the dirt of the Yucatan hills, my parents had moved to Laguna Beach. My mother worked at Woolworths as a counter girl. My father acted in the community theatre there. It was a sleepy beautiful barely touched village, really. It lay off the old Highway — the old PCH. In those years nobody thought about the destruction of entire pine forest in the San Bernadino mountains. Olson didn’t dream of tourist high rises, resorts for white people, all across the Yucatan peninsula.

A half century has been spent in the West destroying things, and destroying people, and destroying beauty. A post apocalyptic treeless suburb, that is the inner circle of hell. Having to live next to affluent white men who bitch about Jews, and then look to play a round of golf at one of the thousands of courses in drought ravaged California. While in far off corners of the globe U.S. made bombs explode and kill and maim. These same guys, over drinks, might discuss topics like ‘reverse racism’. Fifty solid years of this. — John Steppling’s blog

Imagine in this crass, Hollywood-drenched, Chosen Few World of high financial and structural violence and rape and rapine, resource wars, total cultural and physical annihilation of the tribes, and we have Steppling surfing these monster 100-foot waves seeking what it means to be in the present reading the footprints of the past, histories written and rewritten, and into the eye of the poet, which is the vortex of our cultural wars: “The sedimentation of terror into language, specifically into the naming of things, is that magical element in spoken text that differentiates it from reading to oneself silently. Both can be mimetic, but the range of the frightening is greater when it happens on stage.”

Steppling dis-interns the graveyards of humanity and philosophy in a process of eliminating vis-a-vis this modern, scientific and technocratic metallic world the magic, the thoughtful, the greater good of humanity to express, as poets and as the players, actors, in this life theater. He ties this into those who have fought to erase memory, to dominate:

The domination of nature coincided with the neutralizing of Language. Shorn of terror, the cry became the concept, Dionysian energy was expelled, superstition replaced by logic. This was the force of Enlightenment thinking, and the correctives were real, but less observed, the cleansing of that which allowed for the tragic to reveal itself. The tragic as a sensibility; and without that sensibility, the infinite domination, unchecked rational horror grow on the underside of the image and word.

He’s looking at class in most of his work, and Steppling discovers that corporate interests have eliminated the outsider, helped to cull the very idea of class and what the artist’s role is in “the great Spectacle today.” We see threaded like glacial melt Steppling’s look at how we in this punishment society put down the poor, forcing the poor into some crazy reformulaton in our theater or film.

Housebreak them. Make them heel. Make them sentimental. This is the paternalism of ‘encouragement.’ I’ve always felt insulted when anyone wanted to encourage me. Encouragement is the sadism of the ownership class, the good plantation owner, those who enjoy the power that comes from encouragement. I’ve said before, grants and the writing of applications for grants is a form of psychological servitude.

Art, politics, education, and creativity, the word, the intersection of a neoliberalism, a fake Left, all those ideas come into the mental landscape of Steppling, who is a studied playwright, living in a world of intellectual conceptualizations, and he sees the bright line of mimesis as how Adorno formulated it – “as a way out from under the crushing conformity and standardization of mass culture, to trace authentic artworks and to trace the path of their occurrence,” John writes.

I’ve been experiencing first-hand this deadening of culture, ideas, words, poetry, in the education systems I have taught in, and the echo of William Burroughs who called school “the Job” is a place where Steppling and I and so many others see as penal colonies where “the spontaneous fantasies of children are literally beaten out of them . . . the business of extinguishing that fantasy and creativity.”

Mimesis is a form of expression, not a Xerox copier in the head. – John Steppling

This book is a slice on the microscope slide looking at the DNA of modern American psychosis – and the truth is in the antithesis of human and narrative truth, Steppling has discovered in his six decades on the planet:

The only truth now is bureaucratic, administrative, or data based. The fixedness of both ideas and beliefs in those ideas, has disappeared from the contemporary life. One feels that people, in general, deal with quantifications, with administrative rules and regulations. The age of regulations. They do not explore the nature of meaning.

I can digress here, which is one of Steppling’s favorite pastimes writing — entering and exiting the rabbit hole. Punishment, retribution, class war, patriarchal bullshit. Check this out — state of ever-Blue Politics of Washington State:

Division of child support services killing the parent (mostly men) big time if some part of child support has not been paid:

a warning — driver’s license will be suspended; no commercial driver’s license shall be gotten; all Fish and Wildlife licenses issued suspended (can’t fish, hunt, or trap); can’t gather seaweed or shellfish; you won’t be able to maintain insurance coverage; doing business in the state of WA will be affected; your ability to practice your licensed profession, occupation, or trade in WA will be suspended; you shall be held in contempt of court by the state of WA.

In so many ways, Steppling speaks to my own struggle with education and social work and social justice in this state or anywhere. Imagine, you fuck up and don’t pay child support, so, the state goes after you with vengeance. Ahh, then you end up in Haeder’s casebook, homeless, strung out, lost, abandoned. It does happen, these laws and punishments, this retributive society, one that is spittle from Hollywood and the leadership (sic) class that is bent on eviscerating the poor. Steppling says there are no writers, poets, musicians, artists, philosophers really chipping away at the pedantic or the narrow self-important angles to get a real narrative of what sort of fascism that is here now and has been here for decades. Again, time and time again, I talk to these Democrats, these people voting for same sex marriage, same sex adoption, goofy ideas about girls and women in war, all the shitty PC and broken diversity crap, and, alas, we are in a time of collective abandonment, a psyche that is cleaved by trauma, because really very few care to know the cause of so much class hate, class pain.

The bedrock of this lack of thinking and struggle to see meaning as the universal pathway to thought is a society transforming nature and the inclination of the human to work within self outward, working to be original and the same at the time, but now we are a culture denuded of agency, split into identities created by marketing and advertising, and transfixed into a “giant apparatus of policing.” The checks and balances are those so-called culture purveyors, those gesticulating freaks that are unwilling to see a life, live a life, outside of Capital Imperialism, Neoliberalism, Fascism of Privatization.

Steppling doesn’t delve deeply in some of the neo-tribalist thinkers in any of his work; I’ve always been able to make that leap by thinking about the ideas of tribalism cocooned in the philosopher Daniel Quinn’s brain, who calls this a period of remembering, dislodging the great forgetting around what it is to be human outside the narrow constraints of 12,000 or 8,000 years of totalitarian agriculture. John does see tribes of the past living in relatively stable settings. The elimination of so many tribes around the world in the name of capital, manifest destiny, whiteness, is a testament to Western societies slurping up the coin of the realm at a price: “ . . . contemporary societies of the West have perfected a kind of industrial level violence and irrational lust for conquest, and a fetid clenched jaw blindness that has no rival in history. It is the culmination of something that went very wrong.”

Steppling looks at theater, architecture, post-modernism, Freudian and Jungian psychology, the art scene, fine art, photography, Hollywood, propaganda, education, all the lower forms of capitalism, all those devolving collective dendrites of a culture preened by cultural gatekeepers and the models of each generation’s tragically hip pseudo thinkers, all those posing intellectuals.

The crucible of Steppling’s galvanizing thinking is tied to what is authentic artwork, what is the concrete thing that is the spontaneous creative gravity pulling forth this flash-point of the highly creative, which is at the same instance a series of contradictions that make the process magic and concrete.

Edward Said calls this the undefined time and place. Steppling adds, “These are the contours of the imagination. We hear, we invent, we are deaf – but all of it is engaged with, and absorbed.”

In the larger frame of Steppling’s looming and far-ranging essays on/at/in his blog, we are taken into a minefield of the depraved minds of those cultural and propaganda spinners who have not only co-opted liberalism and urbanity . . . but what it means to be a writer, someone telling stories versus someone marketing stories, spinning and PR-lobbing things that are not accurate. This world Steppling covers extensively in his writing, calling to task the posings/posturing and the denaturing of figurative art into something set in a ghost-land of misled identities, narratives and characters.

We get to the data driven shit world of today, all the bureaucracies, this punishment culture, this one driven by a war machine run by USA, Israel, the G-7, the wicked stinger of the scorpion called capitalism. There is a critique of the whiteness of this imperialism, depraved and puritan all in one heave, and there is gentrification of the land and culture and arts, as well as this art-loving haute bourgeoisie class that has denuded meaning and hard work from education, learning, and thinking. This is the class warfare that provides the fodder for ever more Draconian and pervasive punishment and retribution and financial recriminations.

A world people by bearded Duck Dynasty creeps and nerds stuck in Ikea-furnished prisons. It all comes down to lacking curiosity and dependence on technocratic dogma. Titrating back into this deadening tool of marketing and generic history and measured thinking. Steppling calls for open schools which “must offend, must drive some off, must never be bland or generic. Better to be wrong.”

Paulo Freire’s pedagogy, “teaching people to see and hear is the first thing. And then to stimulate the mimetic in relation to all of it. To relearn narrative and story. That is the beginning.”

What Freire posits – He who thinks and does not learn is in great danger.

The vocabulary of our times is not up to snuff in Steppling’s view. It’s torn from our collective memory, reshaped as a kind of amnesia, what Russell Jacoby calls “… the general loss of memory is not to be explained solely psychological . . . . Rather it is social amnesia – memory driven out of mind by the social and economic dynamics of this society.” In the critical mass of the mind in this human condition is what we might like to consider true artwork, a type of “force of negativing the madness of society, the waste and abuse, and this is the negative dialectic; negate the negation, for that is the reality today.”

Daily I toil teaching people around me – younger – to live with resistance and refusal as the underpinning of any life in this hijacked capitalism, the drone warfare of consumerism bombarding us every nano second. Steppling is a friend of Henry Giroux, and in this short book pulls from one of his books, The Violence of Organized Forgetting (2014):

Students are now taught to ignore human suffering and to focus mainly on their own self-interests and by doing so they are being educated to exist in a political and moral vacuum. Education under neoliberalism is a form of radical depoliticization, one that kills the radical imagination and the hope for a world that is more just, equal, and democratic.

This insight Steppling brings to art, unraveling the fabric of mass media, his microscope on those attempts at art in TV, and his dog-earing philosophy-psychology-the dark arts of culture. For him, there is a real sense of lamentation in America, longing for some imagined or pre-invented past where there was “order” or some sense of commonly held beliefs.

We are in a time of conformity, Steppling poses, even in our supposed non-conforming perception, and in that broken covenant this society has a  “narcissistic desire . . . self aggrandizement . . . splitting and projection of our bad selves onto the Other.”

He ventures back to how much we have changed in America, how culture is tied to an infantile psyche, “ever afraid of being found out in its incompleteness, in turn cannot afford to gaze too long at certain things.”

I see it everyday, working in Chinatown, Portland, serving as a case manager for homeless, recovering addicts, early release prisoners, veterans, families. This gaze, this head down society looking at those flip after flip pages of self-loathing and self-aggrandizement, well, it is madness to see the broken people living on pavement, actually in the doorways of fancy restaurants and hip shoe stores. Raging lunacy, pickled brains, entire families and their dogs out there, in the oh so hip Portlandia represents what Steppling pinpoints in his work.

I stop and talk to those really down and out, on my way to my office where I serve people who have at least gotten teeth yanked, bellies checked, and are in temporary housing and tied to the recovery model of Narcotics Anonymous, Heroin Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, you name it, all those sponsors and other case managers. These people on the streets have their stories too, amazing ones, torn from the psychological hell that people create for their children, spouses, friends, lovers.

“The purpose of Western capitalist society is to erase ALL stories and replace them with commercials, or, in other words, with anti-stories,” he writes. This is the crux of what Steppling uncovers throughout his musings and philosophical ministerial show. Until the story we have in 21st America is one where the working stiffs, including social workers and teachers like me, imagine we may be moving up some ladder, to be the kings and queens of our castles, to have those two week trips to Machu Pichu, or wherever, any fantasy that has been peddled in the crap we consume — TV, drama, movies, news, magazines, the WWW, education.

I find it more and more difficult to find empathy coming from these people, and even supposedly successful folk with jobs and mortgages and some flimsy undergraduate degrees can spew some of the most hateful fascist craps — “Way too many people on earth. Seven-point-one billion, so someone has to go. I have no problem putting the needle in the arm of some loser druggies shooting or snorting up. They should be the first to go.”

This propaganda consumed by these suburbanites, calling for eugenics and mass slaughter against those we love to stigmatize. You know, people who were once loved or held as babies, now on the streets, struggling, lunatics panhandling, voices in their heads, forever driven to show us how close we are to disaster. Ourselves.

Steppling cites Arno Gruen, how hatred is fueled to destroy empathy. “Sometimes we blame the victims. They make us feel very uncomfortable; we are ashamed of our empathy because we hate the victim ourselves.” (The Betrayal of the Self, 2007)

This is what Steppling unseals in this hermetically coffined society where the stories of struggle — real struggle, the hardscrabble struggle of barely knowing who we are, let alone the struggle of the streets, this school to prison pipeline and cradle to grave social system that has been set up by Capitalism  — are never written about with depth and empathy and understanding, and the victims grow, and nothing Hollywood or literary-wood or drama-wood produces even is close to the reality of struggle, near death, Dickensian and Kafka-esque, all of the stories that need to be told, never get told.

Just cut-outs, the reality of people who do not exist in the minds of the controllers, those gate-keepers, those plied with money artists and editors and MFA instructors and super-star Oprah Book of the Month folk.

His look at the death of agency and the death of independent thought, the killing of questioning minds and the suffocation of the soul speak loudly in this book and on/in/at his blog.

Just today . . . . Thinking about Steppling’s look at this failure of the punishment state, the war on drugs, the war on people, I ran into story after story on my caseload — people the triple victim of a penality-corrupt legal-penal system. Older women, now clean and sober, in stable housing my organization provides, with some hands up, and yet, story after story of obscene legal bills being busted for possession, spending 75 days in the clinker and coming out with $3000 bills for the court costs and the fees and such, and, then, two years later, after homelessness, after living on the streets, dumpster diving, scrapping, anything but dealing with letter and summons and warrnats, bam, the $3000 is now $5000, and then the driver’s license is suspended, another $1500 owed there for penalities.

Imagine, trying to get these people minimum wage jobs, and then all these fees and retributions and pounds of flesh held against them, in the tens of thousands per person. Former homeless people, who were not worrying about US Postal deliveries or summons or the long arm of the law creating debtors’ fees, prison, etc. These are not the stories of the elite, the vaunted value-added ones educated at Harvard or UCLA. The stories of my people are on the police blotters or are ripped to shreds by the middle class Speilbergs or anyone with hearts of stone and brains channeled for the One Percent, to tell stories that are both lies and false memories.

Imagine this entire gambit broken down as a way to push more propaganda and the dark arts of vilifying and blaming the victim.

Foreclosure after couch surfing after stolen children after endless payments to the ferryman and the financial philanderers.

This is the way Steppling points his readers to, as the underskin of his work:

And one sees it today in corporate news coverage. The control by the state of “message.” The “message” of the Olympics is Russia is bad, and full of stupid people. You see terms like “cassocks” used a lot. You see the control in what is covered and what is NOT covered. Your see it in the idiotic disinformation on the planned covert destabilizing of Venezuela (as an example). . . . The media distorts Israeli violence and apartheid. It treats all dissent in the US as either terrorism or kooks. And most of all, the control is exercised via ” entertainment.” The constant, CONSTANT, outpouring of stupidity.

So we are here, where disagreements with the law, the financial rules, all those bankers’ games, everything that culls any sense of common sense, that is somehow suspect. There is madness in what Steppling points to, and this is a country that is in possession of a stone (stoic) heart of a killer, as D.H, Lawrence wrote.

The struggle to understand and value art that “knows something that we do not know” is a constant theme in John Steppling’s work-world.

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3 Responses to The Eye of the Beholder: There is Never Anything New

  1. The review makes the book sound like it’s all about white male patriarchal thought. A pity it doesn’t (or at least the review doesn’t) address the 50+ percent of American society who are either female or minorities and who rejected white male patriarchal thought decades ago. I get a little fed up with white males who are really talking about themselves but like to make out they represent us, too. They don’t.

    • That’s a valid critique. Though I haven’t read the book, it sounds like it has a class-based analysis of white patriarchal thought. White males may be over-represented in most media and public discourse, but I’d argue within the group certain ideas are given more exposure than others (as among other genders and minorities in the public sphere).

  2. sojourner says:

    Reblogged this on An Outsider's Sojourn II and commented:

    Steppling looks at theater, architecture, post-modernism, Freudian and Jungian psychology, the art scene, fine art, photography, Hollywood, propaganda, education, all the lower forms of capitalism, all those devolving collective dendrites of a culture preened by cultural gatekeepers and the models of each generation’s tragically hip pseudo thinkers, all those posing intellectuals.

    The crucible of Steppling’s galvanizing thinking is tied to what is authentic artwork, what is the concrete thing that is the spontaneous creative gravity pulling forth this flash-point of the highly creative, which is at the same instance a series of contradictions that make the process magic and concrete.

    Edward Said calls this the undefined time and place. Steppling adds, “These are the contours of the imagination. We hear, we invent, we are deaf – but all of it is engaged with, and absorbed.”

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