ALL HAIL THE ANTI-NATURALS
“ We are motivated to seek new forms of truth, beauty and pleasure. . . . It is not enough to decry the existence of the Spectacle. We intend to use both art and theory as a battering ram against Capitalism and its false opposition, tribalism, in all of its mystical forms. We believe it is possible to move beyond the inexcusable savagery of everyday life . . . We reject all attempts to fix our experience solely in its biological dimension. Whenever individuals believe that some aspect of their experience is natural, whether good or bad, they disavow responsibility for it . . . The source of our intuitions about our nature is none other than the machinations of the perfumed dictators of the System of Commodities. Once the dream of authenticity is planted in the psyche, it is very difficult to weed out. . . . The underground is smothered in waves of bad art which effectively silence its revolutionary voice. This is just the sort of brilliant recuperation scheme we have come to expect from the Spectacle. The correct interpretation of the idea of total aestheticization is that all actions can be carried out in an aesthetic manner . . . The Spectacle diverts the aesthetic impulse into the empty act of consumption. The only arena in which individuals are allowed to feel liberated is the shopping mall . . . There is no Eden to return to, but there are thousands of brief moments of freedom to be gained.”
Andrew Gallix interviews The Anti-Naturals
COPYRIGHT © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
3AM: Who are The Anti-Naturals? How long has the group existed?
AN: We formed The Anti-Naturals in 1997, in an attempt to address more systematically and effectively certain pressing problems in art and theory. Current members include: Scott Foust, Prof. Timothy Shortell, Karla Borecky, Graham Lambkin, Michael Popovich, Adris Hoyos, Darren Harris, Robert Beerman, Howard Lester, and Tim Goss. Our work includes music, visual art, video, poetry, and prose. We operate a record label, Swill Radio (founded 1983), which will also distribute our videos, and a web magazine, Fifteen Credibility Street, which features art, poetry and essays explaining our critique. In addition, we are putting together a print magazine, Aesthete, which we expect will appear this year. At some point in the near future, we plan to publish a series of art books, under the imprint of Überkatze Studio.
Our association is based on a shared sense of aesthetic possibilities. All of the Anti-Naturals are scientists and sensualists in the classical sense: we are motivated to seek new forms of truth, beauty and pleasure. Unlike much contemporary art, our work champions a rational objectivity, grounded in aesthetic judgment. Contrary to the post-modernists, in particular, the purpose of our work is not to call attention to how clever we are. We expect art to be more than an idea or an event; we are more interested in the product than the process.
We share the firm conviction that art is a form of argumentation--again, in the classical sense, as the assertion of a point of view, an observation about the nature of Capital in the age of the Spectacle. Our work is critical, with all that implies: it is analytical, systematic, rational, passionate. We are aware of the magnitude of the forces mobilized by the System of Commodities. But, it is not enough to decry the existence of the Spectacle. We intend to use both art and theory as a battering ram against Capitalism and its false opposition, tribalism, in all of its mystical forms. We believe it is possible to move beyond the inexcusable savagery of everyday life.
3AM: In your manifesto you say that "Historically, the 'natural' has been equated with the 'good.'" Couldn't one argue that historically, the 'natural' has also been equated with the 'bad'. I'm thinking of the repression of (mainly female) sexual feelings over the centuries, for instance, or the negation of death today. And what about the literary rejection of Nature especially at the end of the 19th century (Wilde's Aestheticism, Baudelaire saying that "La femme est naturelle, c'est ŕ dire abominable" etc)?
AN: It is true that there are particular conditions under which the natural‚ has been considered evil or negative, though today the association that seems most prominent is natural = good. But, our intent was not to suggest an universal law about the relationship. Rather, it was to call attention to the strategic use of the concept by both Capital and Religion. Both Capital and Religion use whichever association suits their immediate needs. Whether the natural is taken as the symbol of good or evil, the assertion is always contrary to the interests of individuals. The starting point of our critique is to call attention to this false opposition. This is the sort of illusion that weaves all types of veils, keeping the true interests of the Spectacle well hidden.
Nature has been used to justify oppression of every form. If one looks no further than American history--a rather narrow slice of human experience, though Disney would have you believe otherwise--examples can be found of the legitimation of savage inequalities based on race, gender, place of origin, language, sexual preference, and even marital status! Some of these arguments may strike the modern ear as outdated (e.g. that those of non-European descent are naturally servile) but similar appeals to nature are commonplace in contemporary society. Despite its obvious absurdity, the concept retains substantial rhetorical power.
We reject all attempts to fix our experience solely in its biological dimension. Whenever individuals believe that some aspect of their experience is natural, whether good or bad, they disavow responsibility for it. This always works to their disadvantage. It is impossible to separate the cultural from the biological in an organism as complex as the human animal. Since we have no reliable way of knowing what aspects are mostly biological (and therefore, perhaps, resistant to change) and what aspects are learned, we are susceptible to the poisonous whisperings of the Spectacle. The source of our intuitions about our nature is none other than the machinations of the perfumed dictators of the System of Commodities. Once the dream of authenticity is planted in the psyche, it is very difficult to weed out.
The work of The Anti-Naturals is intended as a kind of inoculation against this fever. Aestheticization is the exercise of a disciplined will. Far better to imagine that everything is possible, and to vigorously experiment with various combinations, than to refuse to act because one feels helpless or denies responsibility. There may be aspects of one’s character, or of society, that will be resistant to change. But it is a strategic error to presume that one knows which aspects, if any, are relatively fixed. Resistance to the System of Commodities, and its enforcers (advertising, the confessional, mysticism, etc.) necessitates a cynical point of departure. Everything must be questioned, though one must not get caught up in the act of questioning itself (as do the post-modernists, the quintessential recuperators). We intend to use the Negative, in combination with our aesthetic optimism, to win leverage against the domination of the Spectacle.
3AM: Are you influenced by the late 19th century Aesthetes and if so in which way?
AN: Our main heritage from the Aesthetes of the 19th century is the general notion that one's life should be a work of art. But we take the idea further. Everything, from the individual to the social, should be a work of art. The old avant-garde axiom, "everyone an artist," has been largely misinterpreted (often by the avant-garde itself) to mean that everyone can be a musician, poet, etc. The underground is smothered in waves of bad art which effectively silence its revolutionary voice. This is just the sort of brilliant recuperation scheme we have come to expect from the Spectacle.
The correct interpretation of the idea of total aestheticization is that all actions can be carried out in an aesthetic manner. The secret power of both art and science resides in the Elegant Solution, which combines the Good, the True and the Beautiful with the critical approach of the Negative, to create solutions that are innovative in terms of both function and beauty. This is the exact opposite of Capitalism. Despite constant claims to the contrary, under the Spectacle, Capital is the primary concern. The Spectacle diverts the aesthetic impulse into the empty act of consumption. The only arena in which individuals are allowed to feel liberated is the shopping mall. (We shop, now, for everything, not just needed objects, but for a sense of identity and meaning--in particular, for our authentic self.) But, of course, shopping is a false liberty. The main objective of The Anti-Naturals is to release aestheticism from the shackles of the Spectacle. Only then can it be used as a weapon.
3AM: You seem to place religion, capitalism and positivism on the same level. Wasn't positivism fought by religion precisely because science was going against nature?
AN: We place these three forces of modern society on the same level because they are equally to be opposed. It is not that they can be reduced to one another. Indeed, they have come into open conflict with one another at various times. Our point is that they each operate within the Spectacle and must be contested.
The positivist science of the mind is a complex apparatus that
enforces faith in the System of Commodities. The confessional is one of the central mechanisms of the operation of power in modern society. At various locations--family, school, hospital, factory, therapist’s couch, as well as church--we are called upon to examine and disclose the contents of our minds in order to function within normal parameters in daily life. Our society reserves special vitriol for those who show bad faith. There is no more reliable a sign of bad faith than the refusal to confess.
The most obvious example of this concerns sexuality. We are at a point when the criminalization of thought is not some Orwellian fantasy, but rather, the rule of the day. Every effort is made to ensure that all forms of desire conform to the dictates of Judeo-Christian morality--in order that we be good little shoppers. It is not enough that one’s behavior stay within the limits of this anti-sensual creed, one must completely surrender one’s mind. There is no such thing, in our world, as private sexual thoughts. (Here in the U.S., we have had the unfathomable alliance of radical feminists and reactionary fundamentalists on the issue of pornography. How can this alliance be explained? Both sides agree that lust should be a thought-crime.)
The confessional is a social control mechanism. The efficiency principle of power requires that you police yourself. You must interrogate your desire, and punish yourself too. Just as the authenticity swindle takes advantage of feelings of inadequacy, the confessional also exploits emotional weakness. Guilt is a form of extortion.
At the same time, the positivist science of the mind demands that we be perfectly healthy. We live in a state of total psychoanalytical coverage. (Having a sad moment? Let’s talk about it!) No darkness is allowed. The shopping mall, after all, is an artificially bright environment. The System of Commodities needs happy, energetic shoppers. In between these powerful contrary forces, many lives are ground to dust.
The Anti-Naturals reject the noxious creed of the System of Commodities. We refuse to surrender the liberty of our minds. We keep secrets. In our work, we allow space for exploration of the entire range of our desires and our emotional experiences. Avant-gardes, in the past, have made the error of wallowing in a particular state of experience (absurd, angry, cruel, hallucinogenic, etc.). We offer, instead, a rational aesthetic based on curiosity, and a confidence in empirical experimentation.
3AM: In your manifesto, you also state that "The system of commodities" accounts for "the perception of the past as being somehow more authentic." Could you explain this?
AN: The past is always viewed as more authentic than the present. All societies ascribe metaphysical qualities to the past. It is one of the key features of political legitimation, whether of a ruthless oligarchy, a tribal elder, or the domination of Capital in any pseudo-democracy. It is always in the interests of those who hold power to obscure the self-interest of their action. They command for the sake of their own aggrandizement, and ideology is required to deflect scrutiny. This basic notion has been incorporated into the Spectacle, and multiplied a thousand-fold. The entire apparatus of mass communication is employed to obscure the nature of power in contemporary society. The events, decisions, and morality of the past all seem much clearer when simplified in the usual
ways the media operates. In the seductive strategy of the Spectacle, this not only induces an anxiety about the complexities of the present (which can always be ameliorated by a purchase), but also continuously re-legitimizes the media, itself, as the presenter of the facts. The only real fact is that all forms of the mainstream media are owned by a few large corporations. The circus of opinions and debates that constitute almost all contemporary politics is based on a system of false oppositions that effectively obscure the workings of the Spectacle.
Although the characteristics of our material conditions--drudgery and powerlessness--are the source of feelings of rage and alienation, when this emotional energy is turned on itself, it becomes free-floating, separated from its true object. Our slavery is recognized as slavery, but not to Capital. In the logic of authenticity, we have become slaves to modernity: to change, to complexity, to responsibility. Our lack‚ is not material, not related to our stultifying, impoverished work and atrophied social life, but rather, follows from our having strayed from the idealized past.
It is the nature of the Spectacle to transform all experience into a consumer commodity. It is no surprise, then, that so much of modern capitalist production should be focused on the authenticity swindle. It is not merely that we are told that our authentic self is only a credit card order away. We must be told what and how to purchase. Since, in the midst of the Spectacle, all experience is real only when it can be consumed, it is natural to follow the guidance offered by the array of products engineered to address each particular need. In reality, it is quite easy to mass market to hundreds of millions of individuals,‚ since each quest is identical in its basic features.
The movement of critique is not backwards, as the fiction of
authenticity would dictate, but rather, forward--into the future. We can make history, not by trying to return to the mythical beginning, before we lost our innocence, but by creating new possibilities for pleasure and contemplation. The total aestheticization of life is accomplished through systematic application of critical reflection to one’s thought and action. Life is something to be created by an act of the will, not recovered like a fleeting dream image. To reclaim life from the Spectacle, one must reject authenticity, which is nothing but a venomous appeal to laziness and fear. One must reject the false promise of therapeutic shopping. In the place of authenticity and its miserable, grinding failure, joy and pleasure and camaraderie are available to those who accept the challenge of aestheticization. There is no Eden to return to, but there are thousands of brief moments of freedom to be gained.
3AM: Your political point of view is quite clear, but how do you translate this in literary terms? Is there an "Anti-Natural" form of writing? Are there some forms of writing that you reject?
AN: Perhaps the most common error for contemporary writers is the excessive worry about the appropriate container for creative work, with its consequent neglect of the work's contents. We live in an age of digital production/distribution, but this does not mean that all the old forms ought to be abandoned. The new technology extends the field of experimentation, but it does not absolutely determine the structure of creative work. New forms are not to be embraced merely on account of their novelty. It is true that some established forms--such as pop songs or memoirs--are exhausted. But, to suggest that all linear structures are irrelevant is simple folly.
We favor many forms of creative writing, but none unequivocally. We are interested in the product, not the process (for the author or the reader). Our insistence on a modern aesthetic is based on a pragmatic perspective. Writing, like other forms of artistic expression, is an act of the will. The goal is to create a new instance of beauty and pleasure. The means by which to achieve this goal are open to empirical experimentation. Our preliminary investigations suggest that clean, brisk language, with an emphasis on lyricism, is most effective.
One tendency in modern writing that we find particularly repulsive is the self-help narrative. We live in a time in which people seem to think that the importance of private memories justifies art. This impulse reeks of authenticity. Good writing evokes an imagined world--if it happens to be related in some way to the author‚s actual experience, that’s fine, but it is not required. The creativity of writing is in the imagination of the details as much as in the expression of them.
We are not suggesting that art ought to be divorced from the real world. On the contrary, art is political and sociological precisely because aestheticism is a form of critique. Art must have aesthetic value to justify itself. The work of art itself must be judged by how well or poorly it illuminates this value. When the work succeeds, it does not matter if ideas come from personal experience or from creative intent.
Writing is an art form based in language. This is an obvious observation, so it is startling to realize the number of contemporary writers who seem unaware of the fact. The obsession with authenticity deludes many into thinking that sincerity of their sentiments or the earnestness of their life lesson is all that is required of their work. Writing, though, is more than mere communication. The beauty of the sound of words is vital to any written work, poetry or prose. Because of the pollution resulting from mystifications of the Spectacle, writing (as well as the other arts) is reduced to entertainment, which is always based on a nostalgia for the authentic, or some stylistic innovation devoid of the requisite critique. Most of what passes for avant-garde today is nothing but a series of empty changes in form. But any art based solely on new form is immediately obsolete. This is the perfect art for the System of Commodities--another shiny package to distract the eye. The so-called avant-garde is stripped of its revolutionary potential and becomes little more than a product testing laboratory to be raided by the marauding barons of Entertainment. The combination of nostalgia and empty titillation has proven to be a winner for the forces of repression. The Anti-Naturals directly oppose the relegation of both art and science to the whims of Capital.
Swill Radio records are available from The Anti-Naturals’ website
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