Categories
Criticism

American Horror Story – Cult: Liberal Nihilism

You’re not a hero. You’re a symbol, one I created! Killing people doesn’t get the men hard and the ladies wet anymore. But Americans lose their ever-loving shit when you destroy their symbols – statues, flags, pledges of allegiance, $20 bills, white Jesus and Merry fucking Christmas! You come for any of that stuff, you’ve got rioting in the streets and domination of the news cycle for weeks.

-Kai Anderson, Cult.

American Horror Story: Cult felt like the lamest of the show’s iterations. I have no problem with media that wishes to tackle contemporary political issues, but Cult was both heavy-handed and inept in its attempt. I quote Ben Gazur writing for the Guardian about the season:

Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in 2016. This was a problem for the world in general and American Horror Story in particular. Horror and satire died that day. Nothing the writers could imagine comes close to the visceral shock of that moment – but they decided to offer their hot take anyway.

I agree with the sentiment of Gazur’s point here and would expand to say that American Horror Story floundered in addressing contemporary politics precisely because the rise of Trump and the Alt-Right is a quintessential American Horror Story. Perhaps satire died or was wounded, but horror? How could horror still not be used to address the profuse evil and ugliness that was more and more visibly rearing its head? I argue that the ideology of Cult is one of liberal nihilism, it tries to contend that the Democrats and the Republicans are both cults, whilst offering only a vague mutation of both establishment groups as a way forward. There is nothing inherently profound to the idea that politics and political groups are akin to cults, read Žižek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology (more technical) or First As Tragedy, Then As Farce (more polemical), and you can understand the basic principles of belief and contradiction that make up ideology. It is not just the overall ideology of liberal nihilism which I have a problem with, but also the absence of the Left proper so to speak. In this show we get liberal small business owners, we get MAGA-hat wearing Trump supporters, and we get Alt-right basement-dwelling militias a la Fight Club. Where is the Left, I ask? Apart from a brief couple of minutes of people (readable as antifascists) protesting in the park against cult leader Kai’s speech, there is no real sense of an alternative to him, there is no opposite end of the spectrum in the show. There are only people working within the capitalist-Symbolic order as it were, who are aware there is something wrong with the society and the people around them, but are only able to address it within the very limited confines of Liberalism. I am not suggesting the show should have had Joseph Stalin burst into a scene, rifle in hand, but it could have done more with its subject matter than basic, lame caricatures from a very narrow window of American politics.

            I would say that Cult tries to address two contemporary issues that encapsulate part of America’s political landscape, one is racism and the other is sexism. Racism feels present in the first few episodes, we see Kai antagonising migrants to frame them as being violent, but then race sort of tails off from the season. Sexism is the issue given more attention throughout, and often it feels awkwardly handled. It feels like the presence of feminism within the show is of a liberal, white variety. It does not really have any interest past surface level appearances of injustice. Characters like Winter and Ivy are outraged that Hillary Clinton lost, and the show frequently, whether it agrees with this idea, frames Clinton as being a feminist, or an icon of feminism. If Clinton is viewed as a symbol for feminist change and progress, she is an empty one, she speaks only to the visibility of women within capitalist-patriarchal structures. Her politics and history are anything but feminist and the show glosses over this. In fact, I do not think the show looks at politics in any especially interesting way, no policies are mentioned, no consequences for the victims of these policies are really seen. It is all spectacle, all show – women in positions of power are good, no matter what their politics are.

There is an interesting focus on Valerie Solanas which brings with her the closest thing to a ‘radical’ opposition to sexism. I think the portrayal of Solanas by Lena Dunham is symptomatic of the show’s larger problems. Dunham is at best a problematic feminist figure and at worst an obstructive one, managing to articulate herself poorly on various issues and at times lashing out against black women. Her rejection of Aurora Perrineau’s sexual assault accusation against Murray Miller speaks to a wider problem within white feminism, a tendency to not support and extend their focus beyond the most mainstream issues and therefore leave women of colour out in the cold. The casting of Dunham and the general focus on white women within Cult leaves me disappointed. Generally, I think American Horror Story is pretty good with ethnic minority and queer representation but in the one season where both these categories are perhaps most necessary to be given voices, they occupy a very small portion of the show. Beverly is the only non-white main character whilst Ally and Ivy are at least centre stage lesbians, although sadly the perceived queerness of other characters like Kai and Samuels seems to just link homosexuality with women-hating. I’m not saying these representations alone are the problem so much as it is the fact that it is often poorer queer white and non-whites who are at risk in America be it economic instability or violence carried out by bigots and fascists.  

            Kai refers to numerous famous cult leaders within the show, including Charles Manson. He claims Manson snapped America out of the haze of the hippy movement. In False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kathleen Geier mentions that during the hippie movement Clinton spoke vocally in favour of women’s progress within society before then diverting into a more subdued, corporate legal career. Does the increasing deindustrialisation and expansion of capitalism within America spiriting Clinton away from her radical hippiness not mirror Manson’s dismantling of hippie conceptions via his race-war inspired murders? It feels like within Cult we are meant to be aware of the explicit violence within society which causes traumatic change of the political landscape e.g. terrorist attacks, school shootings, without being aware of the wider, more all-consuming powers which truly bring about ideological extremes such as Trump and the Alt-Right. When Manson spoke about his driving motivations, famously sampled by Death Grips, does he not in a sense reflect the wider powers that be?

What the hell I wanna go off into — and go to work for?

Work for what, money? I got all the money in the world

I’m the king, man

I run the underworld, guy

I decide whos does what and where they do it at

What am I, gonna run around and act like I’m some teenybopper somewhere, for somebody else’s money?

I make the money, man, I roll the nickels

The game is mine

I deal the cards

Sure, Manson spoke these words, but could we also not attribute them to politicians, to capitalists, to those in hierarchal positions of power, who in their conscious and unconscious machinations engineer the very discontent, anxieties, and hatred which fester and grow into a form which is not controllable, at least not beneath Liberalism?

            The ending of Cult felt somewhat like Liberal fantasy to me – Kai is of course written to be ridiculous and hateful (his last words being ‘make me a sandwich’), but the points he makes about symbolism chime true. I quoted them at the beginning of this essay because I feel the idea of visibility, of symbolism, is the core of Cult’s politics. It doesn’t matter really what someone like Hillary Clinton stands for, she’s a woman! It doesn’t matter what brought about the empowerment of the Alt-Right or Kai, he’s dead! Pay attention to Manson, his violence is easy to consume and understand, do not pay attention to the disarmament and absorption of the hippie movement into capitalist culture. When the show ends on that final sting of Ally in the mirror wearing the cloak of the Solanas-cum-Zodiac cult, what are we meant to make of this? It feels like a continuation of political action within the very space of Liberalism which only further breeds political discontent across all aisles. Ally and the others all miss the point again, Kai understood partly the importance of optics, the others merely operate within its regions.

Further Reading:

False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton, edited by Liza Featherstone.

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, by Slavoj Žižek.

The Sublime Object of Ideology, by Slavoj Žižek.

‘When good TV goes bad: how American Horror Story got Trumped’, by Ben Gazur. Accessible at:  https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/jun/04/when-good-tv-goes-bad-american-horror-story

‘Zizi Clemmons: ‘It’s Time For Women of Color…to Divest From Lena Dunham’”, by Whitney Kimball. Accessible at: https://jezebel.com/zinzi-clemmons-its-time-for-women-of-color-to-divest-1820587768

Categories
Politics

(A)politics: A Cheap Negation

Introduction

Politics is controversial, and tiring, and dull, and sometimes horrific, and on rare occasions it offers a little reassurance. Politics is also important – it dictates almost the totality of our existence, to pretend otherwise is either ignorant or disingenuous. To neglect politics is to obfuscate the allocation and dictation of resources and relations which we live our lives by. To be politically indifferent is to stand back and allow the disenfranchised to be further discriminated against and policed in misery. To be weary of politics and to choose to drown it out is to be either extremely privileged or unfortunately foolish.

No Society, Not Ever

Margaret Thatcher once said in a 1987 issue of Women’s Own that there is no such thing as society. Perhaps you agree with this sentiment, perhaps you do not. I think the most charitable interpretation that can be made from this claim is that individual responsibility exists. Certainly, we are all individuals, and all possess varying degrees of autonomy; we all make decisions, though the caveat is that we make these decisions in specific circumstances. A belief that we are all purely individuals, that politically enforced patterns of behaviour do not, cannot exist, is a major aspect of what I deem to be the (A)political ideology.

            I am from a white lower middle-class family in a majority white county of a majority white country. My experiences may differ to various minorities, whether they were born here or migrated from another country. As individuals however, we all must make decisions when it comes to employment, though our choices in employment may differ. My education has been stable, my family’s finances are secure, and I am less likely to be hampered by state apparatuses like the police. I did nothing personally to arrive into this position, I was merely born into it (a phrasing that will return in a more regretful sense). I recognise the privileges that afford me on average more socioeconomic safety than people of minority backgrounds.

            (A)politics in following Thatcher, would not recognise the varying material circumstances that dictate my position in society juxtaposed with that of someone who may be subject to racism. Professor Tricia Rose, Director of Brown University’s Centre for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, delivered a lecture on structural racism, discussing its obfuscation by colour-blindness. Colour-blindness is a magnificent tool of the enlightened (A)political, it marks them at once as appearing rationally indiscriminate whilst usefully (for themselves) stripping each individual of their socio-racial matrix and ignoring wider patterns of behaviour and events within society. If you blot out most of the evidence of there being a problem, how can there be one?

Get Your Politics Out of My Escapist Media

Reality, as each of us individually perceive it, is an ideological construction whereby we explain individual actions and events through certain belief systems which allow us to process them. For the (A)political, their reality is one in which the Other is political yet they themselves remain thoroughly not political. The (A)political believes themselves to be above politics, they see themselves as the models of the world, and so if anything, foreign or (say) Other were to come into the foreground it would create disharmony. They believe culture and politics to be very distant spheres and they seethe at the idea that political agents are tainting culture with their ideologies and agendas.

            The (A)political generally exists within the status quo (a placement they might argue against), and as such all that generally makes up the status quo is non-political, whilst any departure from it is obviously political. For the (A)political, if they see a white man and woman sharing a kiss in a film, they will see this as just a kiss, but when it is an interracial or same-sex or queer couple, it is an upsetting and subversive political act. Of course you can argue that the latter representations are political, the reason one might deem the Other’s presence as being political is precisely because they are politicised, their existences are controlled and enforced in ways the (A)political has not experienced or perhaps if they have experienced similar control they do not grasp it as political as such. But we must also see that of course there is something political about white heterosexuals kissing, it is a representation of certain people and not others (Others).

            The big problem for the (A)political is nearly all cultural texts are inscribed with politics, either implicitly or explicitly, so what exactly is there for them to enjoy? They just want to relax, they will watch something political but will be blind to its politics, ingesting them without further thought.

You Noticing My Politics is Boring in Our Tolerant, Lovely Country

In January, actor Laurence Fox (for some reason) appeared on Question Time and got into a heated exchange with an audience member about racism. She made the claim that the treatment of Meghan Markle by the press was racist, to which he responded that Britain is the ‘most tolerant, lovely country in Europe.’ If we consider how the press discussed Meghan Markle when she and Prince Harry were first publicly dating, words like ‘exotic’ and ‘blood’ were bandied about by the right-wing press. If Markle is Othered in such frank terms of ‘exoticness’ when she has done nothing more controversial than enter a relationship with Prince Harry, then what might we say the same right-wing, pro-monarchy press will be like when the pair are stepping back from royal duties?

I cannot claim Fox is purely (A)political nor would I want to, but in this one fixed moment of broadcast television he exemplifies the (A)political par excellence. He claims Britain is the ‘most tolerant, lovely country in Europe’, but that doesn’t seem like a particularly weighty achievement. We still have institutional racism here in Britain, Black and Muslim minorities are twice as likely to be unemployed as white people and are significantly more subject to police stops. Minorities are still subject to harassment and violence that is racially-motivated. Britain being the most tolerant country in Europe does not end the argument that there is still work to be done when it comes to racial justice.

Fox sees problems of racism not in any institutional form but only as individual issues, if a minority is attacked in this country it is not part of a wider issue for Fox. He is the perpetrator of Tricia Rose’s colour-blindness, if a minority lacks the same opportunities as those around them, it cannot be part of a pattern, it’s just some inexplicable state of being. Fox says we need to combat racism when we see it, but what he means by this is when one very explicit racist does something very obviously racist we slap them on the wrists without investigating further the root causes of the racism. Racism is just an individual failing for Fox. The audience member he was arguing with pointed out Fox is a ‘white, privileged male’ and he responded in turn that he ‘can’t help what I am, I was born like this, it was an immutable characteristic.’ The (A)political here is the inability to see one’s own identity as being on par with that of others. Of course, Fox cannot help being born white, nor more than I can or anyone else. What he can do however is consider how his whiteness makes him subject to different experiences to that of non-whites. The cries of racism bore Fox. I will charitably say that dealing with issues such as racism are tiring, they are not comfortable things when you have to maybe re-consider your world view and actively make changes to try and benefit society around you and yourself. Calling out racism, however, should not bore you. The presence of racism should incite outrage and a willingness to view events more widely than what is presented directly in front of us. Until the (A)political can grasp the larger structural issues at play around and within them, they will continually be confused as to why all these individual incidents keep occurring and why very few of their more diverse friends are calling anymore.

Conclusion

(A)politics is not a true negation of politics, rather just a distorted, often incoherent version of it. The adage that ignorance is bliss has some truth to it when it comes to engaging with politics, it can be harrowing and disillusioning to be involved in contemporary politics at any level above that of (A)politics. We have to transcend this lackadaisical attitude to issues such as institutional racism if we hope to build a better world on the basis of a wealth of academic consensus that point to our numerous and present failings.

In the long term it is beneficial to the (A)political to recognise the need to become truly political so that they can perceive for themselves their own alienation within the political system. What I mean by this is that to be (A)political is to be alienated but unable to precisely trace this alienation. Nothing sounds worse than being trapped and unable to properly utilise language which accounts for one’s own state of being in a coherent manner to those around you. We are all individuals with thoughts and feelings, but if we do not learn to analyse and critique the systems that we uphold and are governed by, we will continue to discriminate against vulnerable classes of our society and face the consequences whenever they bubble upward. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, ‘a riot is the language of the unheard.’ Listening and understanding is in the world’s best interest.  

Further Reading:

Abbie Bray, ‘Question Time flooded with 250 complaints after Laurence Fox’s controversial race row about Meghan Markle.’ Available at: https://metro.co.uk/2020/01/24/question-time-flooded-250-complaints-laurence-foxs-controversial-race-row-meghan-markle-12114511/

Anthony Heath and Lindsay Richards, ‘How racist is Britain today? What the evidence tells us.’ Available at: https://theconversation.com/how-racist-is-britain-today-what-the-evidence-tells-us-141657

Jules Holroyd, ‘Implicit racial bias and the anatomy of institutional racism.’ Available at: https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/publications/cjm/article/implicit-racial-bias-and-anatomy-institutional-racism

David Lammy, ‘The Lammy Report: An independent review into the treatment of, and outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the Criminal Justice System.’ Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/643001/lammy-review-final-report.pdf

Tricia Rose, ‘How Structural Racism Works: Tricia Rose.’ Accessible at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KT1vsOJctMk

Gary Younge, ‘Waking up to the realities of racism in the UK.’ Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/b51d534f-5515-4717-a1e3-866f39955d8f