Yesterday afternoon I entered the Nitehawk Cinema out of respite from the first day of New York winter to catch an early showing of Bong Joon-Ho’s new film Parasite. I grabbed a beer and headed into the theater where I was the only attendee aside from a small group of Park Slope septuagenarians, one of whom kept complaining, to no one’s general interest or inquiry, that the theater “must have been designed for a younger generation.” This woman’s take baffled me as the Nitehawk, albeit a hip place by popular definition, is a straight-forward movie theater, the only difference being the option of table service where one can order food and alcohol, the fact of which only further perturbed me as the concept of “dinner theater” is by no means a novel concept and certainly not a millenial innovation. The heart of this irritation, I suppose, is not the correctness or exactitude of this person’s opinion, but their immediate dismissal of having a modern experience as if, because of a certain set of aesthetic simulacra, this individual had completely written off both place and experience as not being for them rather than being amenable to moving through the world– as if a location’s set of aesthetic sensibilities immediately depreciates its ability to carry or communicate something of value because of an unexamined prejudicial animosity toward said aesthetics. We see this reaction far too often, confusion turned anger turned fallacious, misapprehended conclusion. We see it predominately in the middle and working classes, masses of good people who grow defensive and, subsequently, divergent because the means of their survival is a constant struggle both within the inherent terms of capitalism and against the worker whose similar struggle for survival serves to threaten their own. This tension bleeds into everything if one is not careful, it colors every aspect of experience, and here it was again bleeding through, inhibiting a person of a certain age to simply have an authentic experience because the space the experience was taking place was deemed too modern and, thus, threatening, incapable of containing the experience that speaks to them, which is ultimately a fear we all share. A fear of being phased out, of being obsolete, of death.
As the previews roll, the quartet beside me is still talking, most of it audible. In the sonic pause between two previews I catch the embarrassing confession, “We didn’t know this was a Korean film,” which vexes me, what seems like, permanently, like I may not get to have an authentic experience of my own, like their prejudice has now apocalyptically grown inside of me and I may now have no choice but to drink three beers quite fast and at least get a nap in. I am now thinking of the dialectic tension between intention and ignorance, the evil that arises in the vacuum where criticism is absent, what Hannah Arendt might call “the banality of evil,” the daily, sleepy atrocities we commit or are complicit with because we are too overworked/exhausted/depressed/terrified to do the progressive self-work of putting our actions (whether verbal or physical) into a larger, more meaningful context. I am exhausted by this point. I’m still warming up from the freezing weather so I am hyperbolic, contemplating some kind of grandiose, self-immolating departure from this world. The lights dim. The movie begins. The quartet immediately quiets. I am saved. I cheers myself silently in my dark chair and sit and watch.
I am consistently amazed by the way art manages to utilize modalities of the absurd and the surreal to accurately render the perverse narratives of modernity. A famous example of this could be Picasso’s “Guernica,” a composition where the search for any realistic iteration of war is both absent and irrelevant. What is made to stand in its place is somehow more accurate, more representative of the atrocity of a country divided by violence. It is cluttered, grotesque, cartoonish, episodic, and yet the viewer is able to see so clearly a composition of human suffering. We are able to make this distinction, not because of the talents of the artist to coax our seeing the verisimilitude of their composition, but because it isn’t truly verisimilitude at all, because experience is actually surreal, because existence is actually absurd. In that way art manages to expedite our awareness, to delineate a more obvious allegory that allows our brains to readily interpret our own experiences and the experiences of others. Lived experience, on the other hand, is confusing, miasmic, torturous in its lack of clarity, a continuous movement through symbols, objects, and emotions that by themselves carry no meaning. Our perpetual function of creating or interpreting meaning, whether conscious or unconscious, is a dizzying routine, easily interrupted, and more easily ignored. Art, by its a priori function alone, allows us to be more aware of symbolic function, of scrutiny, of parody, of its many modes of engagement and communication. It, paradoxically, pulls away layers of defense by adding layers.
In Parasite, Bong Joon-Ho does exactly this. He threads us carefully into the narrative we think we know, the easy narrative with clearly defined oppositionals. There is a rich family and there is a poor family. The poor family is creative and cunning and devises a way for each member of the family to take on a position in the home of the rich family. The rich family is busy, simple, gullible. They fall for it. These are easy archetypes of rich and poor. The rich, in their safety of monetary security, are not concerned with matters of loss, only of gain and advantage. They are skeptical to a fault and trusting to an even bigger fault. The poor are cunning and creative simply because they have to be. However, when it comes to achieving their plan of attaining, not even wealth itself, but a simulation of wealth, they are simplistic and uncreative. They gorge, imbibe and loaf. Joon-Ho sets up this stereotypical class dynamic to reveal what (literally) lies beneath it.
I think of a screenshot my friend sent me the other day– a yelp review of their place of employment. The reviewer, furious about their experience, makes an arching statement about the employees, a generalization about their useless education in liberal arts, their animosity towards their jobs, and their millenial privilege of access to higher education in the first place, but, instead of stopping there, makes homophobic/transphobic remarks about the genders and sexual identities of the employees. My friend shares this with me in outrage. What perplexes me is not this person’s anger or their ignorance. What perplexes me is how the review began to address issues of class, relevant and palpable issues, but stops short and diverts to a bigoted attack. The yelper highlights a series of very salient points. Yes, the employees are very educated. Yes, they are underpaid. Yes, their degrees are ultimately meaningless, and yes, they are angry about it. But instead of examining the systemic cause of these issues, instead of looking at why education has ultimately become meaningless as a return investment, or even why employees might become resistant to jobs that barely pay them enough to survive, the yelper moves fallaciously into the ad hominem, blaming the employees themselves as if the power truly rests in their hands. What occurs then is not a constructive analysis wherein any kind of revelation will occur, but a deeper fissure in the tissue of intra-class conflict, a tension that only avails the upper class.
This is exactly how capitalism succeeds. Working class individuals, exhausted, resentful, perhaps even ill, look up at the rich and feel envy but look around at one another and feel enmity, and so, as a means of survival, diverge. Attention is scattered to whatever the exigent issue of one’s subjectivity may be. When this occurs, empathy to a foreign or estranged subjectivity becomes muted or lost all together. Unity becomes an impossibility and criticism becomes either denatured or weaponized. It may be pure conjecture to assume that this yelper is working or middle class, but it is also, not only statistically likely, a position someone of middle class means would take, as every daily monetary or commodified experience is so vital, so deeply a part of their subjectivity it becomes somatic. A sour commodified experience can turn nearly any working-class person, for whom spending money is a very sensitive luxury, apoplectic.
However, my friend and I also commit the same fallacy. They respond with a laconic, “Okay, boomer.” I make a joke about the person not being aided in their search for Knausgaard’s My Struggle pt. 11 (or whatever current volume of self-obsession the Norwegian writer is currently on). We also diverge. We also do not approach the person with empathy. We are also problematic because we take an arbitrary moral position and then gloat with ridicule in the empty privacy of our phones. We too abandon the dialogue of a unified working class.
As the Kim family drink and eat themselves dumb and inert in the lavish living room of their employers, a call comes through the intercom at the front door of the house. They answer it to find the previous housekeeper, Moon-gwang, in a frantic state asking to be let in so that she can retrieve something she left in the basement. All of the Kim family, with the exception of Chung-sook, hide so as to not be exposed as Chung-sook lets the former housekeeper in. They wait in anticipation but eventually coax Chung-sook into looking into the actions and whereabouts of Moon-gwang. Moon-gwang is discovered with her entire body wedged between a wall and a large cabinet. Unable to move the cabinet, she asks the confused Chung-sook for assistance. The rest of the Kim family let curiosity overcome them and follow close behind the action in the shadows as the cabinet moves and reveals a mysterious door. As the door opens, Moon-gwang moves erratically down the basement stairs shouting for what will soon be revealed as her husband. Chung-sook follows once again with the Kims surreptitiously trailing her. It is here, underground, with two working-class families where the narrative of the film truly begins. The tensions of class between the Kim family and the Park family are nearly forgotten, appear almost as a ruse, a sleight of hand to create a surface layer of conflict to pacify or completely obfuscate the much more real and immediate intra-class discrepancy. Moon-gwang reveals to Chung-sook that during the interim of ownership between the original owner (the house’s architect) and the Park family she moved her husband into the basement to avoid the terror of loan sharks. She pleads with Chung-sook to keep him fed. Moon-gwang grows increasingly desperate and obsequious in the presence of Chung-sook’s confusion, her husband delirious and starved. Suddenly, as is cinematically appropriate, one of the spying members of the Kim family slips on the stairway causing the entire family to tumble into view of Moon-gwang who recognizes them and proceeds to film them with her phone. The leverage is immediately shifted as Moon-gwang threatens the Kim family with sending the video to the Park family unless they comply with her wishes.
The nature of this conflict is historied within capitalism, but its perverse transmutation is abundantly modern. The upper class is being used as a mere tool of obliteration, however, the upper class essentially have nothing at stake in the conflict of Moon-gwang and the Kim family. They can obliterate both of families with a snap of their fingers, sending Moon-gwang and her husband into the violent hands of loan sharks (whom they might think as righteous arbiters of their transgression) and the Kims back to their own subterranean apartment. Both working-class families, fully aware of their realities, are immediately divergent, threatened not only by what delayed consequences await them, but by the potential success of the opposing family, as these two realities are almost always mutually present within late capitalism. What then takes place is a battle over commodity. Whoever has the phone, has the power. Moon-gwang uses the information of her phone to manipulate and humiliate the Kim family, which she also documents with her phone, furthering the perverse state of modernity where one cannot even have an authentic experience without also recording it, exploiting it and, thus, commodifying it.
It’s as if modern life were a multiplicitous state of disbelief and verification. The act of documenting affirms the reality of an event but conversely removes the experience of the present from the person documenting. Subsequently, the viewing of the documentation fails to render the presence of the experience, thus falling into a state of dubiousness. Sure, the event must have taken place because there exists a present, replayable document of proof, but the documentation can never carry the effect of presence because it is merely simulation. Our attempts to capture the process are only a process of commodifying the present, of parsing it, watering it down into simulacrum, an easily digestible set of symbols and signifiers than can be understood with the same banality as looking at a cafe menu or crossing a crosswalk, yet the imperative is more absurd. We do this to show that we are alive. We put our lives into sets of simulations that are then mined for their data and used to advertise or sell some version of us right back. The state of late capitalism is at its most grotesque. Advertisement algorithms collect product data to better market their products to consumers, and because the data does not contain subjectivity, this process creates an eerie tension in its dissemination, as its information feigns an awareness of the individual without truly recognizing them. It would not be too hyperbolic to suppose that an ill person could post a video of themselves hacking up their family with an axe and, before the video could be flagged or authorities alerted, this person would receive ads for Bass Pro Shops. The algorithm cannot factor empathy and modern life has become a condition of the algorithm. The consequences of the simulation are as real as the consequences of the lived experience, however those consequences are not always intersectional. Simulation can live out its entire consequence and life its consequence without the two ever recognizing the other. Without recognition of subjectivity, as if living within the simulation, the Kim family finds a vulnerable moment and knocks the phone free from Moon-gwang. The families scramble for the phone but the Kims outnumber and overpower Moon-gwang and Geun-sae. The Kims then bind them both and put them back in the basement. Moon-gwang, in a final struggle, makes a dash up the stairs and is kicked back down the concrete steps, hitting her head on the wall at the end of the steps. The Kims close the basement door and work to repair the consequential mess before the Parks return.
These paths of divergence and parallel can be seen in the lives of the working class Kim family and Moon-gwang family, both in narrative and cinematic effect. Neither of the two ever feel empathy for the other, or consider the other’s position, only how to overcome and destroy the other to get closer to the simulated experience they have cultivated close to the residual wealth of the upper class. In terms of cinematic parallels, there is the obvious symbolic analogy of both families living below ground, the Kims in their basement apartment and Geun-sae in the basement of the Park estate. These two levels, though parallel, also suggest the endlessness of bottoming out within capitalism– the fact that it can always get worse, that so long as we “own” anything it can be taken from us. These realities are mirrored in a successful moment wherein the Kims’ apartment floods causing their lights to flicker, while, at the Park estate, Geun-sae, bound and bloody, performs his ritual morse code by banging his head on the light switches in the basement causing the Park estate lights to flicker in a similar manner with a code from below. The mirroring of these two scenes creates a sense of a mutually destroyed working class, their lack of defense to tragedy, their futile proximity to potential help or agency. It is as if the signal Geun-Sae sends is both transcendent and moot. It rises from the depths, able to perceivably reach its subject and beyond, but is unable to be deciphered and so is dismissed as phenomenon.
Earlier this morning I pass a man outside his apartment arguing with a UPS worker about a package that hasn’t come yet. The worker is trying to calm the man down but the man is livid. He is angry because he has been told, almost certainly by a different division of UPS, that his package should be arriving, and so, conflating this worker’s list of tasks and responsibilities with the tasks and responsibilities with UPS as a corporation, begins to blame the worker, or at least, to confront him with anger, insinuating blame. The worker has to explain the extraneous and multifaceted process of UPS, namely, that he doesn’t load his own truck, that the onus belongs to a separate shift, a separate division of labor in the clumsy bureaucracy of their corporation. The man does not care. He wants his package because he paid for it and so it “belongs” to him. He does not want excuses as to why his package is not being delivered. He wants it and he wants it immediately. The man has no empathy for the delivery driver, only enmity. He does not see another person in front of him but a symbolic representation of a business– not an employee but a simulacrum, and thus, an appropriate object to receive his anger. However, under capitalism, the man’s anger is justified. He spent his money, a signifier of his labor, on a product that he has deemed necessary and was given specific terms as to its delivery. When these terms fail to meet their guarantee, he feels duped, not because he was lied to– he knows deep down this isn’t true– but because he is forced to examine the absurdity of the whole transaction, that his money carries no intrinsic value, that the product he has purchased likely has no true necessity, that the corporation he has entrusted has no true responsibility to its delivery. All of these terms are mere arbitrations of a certain survival under capitalism but they have nothing to do with what it means to be human and extant. On the other side, the worker is faced with the same absurdity. He is faced more frankly with the meaninglessness of his job, not because his job has no function or utility, but because his tasks have been isolated from their holistic function. He is forced to look not only at the dissatisfaction of himself as an employee but also at his forced ignorance as an employee in the name of mechanized efficiency, and furthermore at the fact that his subjectivity has become occluded by the brown livery of his employer. Once again the working class diverges and defeats itself. An impasse which neither created, which is created the moment we trust the terms of capitalism, has become an impassable altercation between two men who will now never see the other’s subjectivity, will not work to find compassion for the other or to look beyond the absurdity of the impasse.
The realization of an absurd modernity also befalls the Kim family, who continue, now homeless after their apartment floods, to work for the Park family, with the full knowledge of an injured Moon-gwang and her husband hungry and bleeding in the basement. They are fully disillusioned to the reality of the house and of their place inside of it– a reality that can only seem to us, the viewers, as surreal. Ki-taek receives a call to go on shopping errands with Yeon-gyo the day after spending the night in a large homeless shelter. He is visibly exhausted not only of labor, but of the charade it requires. At the estate he and his wife, Chung-sook, work to the demands of Dong-ik to organize the house for an impromptu birthday party for the Park’s youngest child, Da-song. Also present are their children, Ki-woo and Ki-jeong, who have been invited by the Park family, not as laborers, but out of respect for the services and friendships they have brought to the family. The party is a lavish affair, more a symbolic display of class than a celebration of the child for whom it’s intended. Ki-woo has brought with him to the party his scholar’s rock, a talisman supposed to bring great wealth, with the intention of atoning the harm done to Moon-gwang and Geun-sae. He descends the stairs to the basement with his rock to find a lifeless Moon-gwang. In his search, he is ambushed by a frantic Geun-sae who chases him up the stairs and ultimately bashes his head with the scholar’s rock. Once free, Geun-sae enters the party where he fatally stabs Ki-jeong in the chest. His presence triggers an epileptic episode in the young Da-song, who is reminded of his first sighting of Geun-sae in the kitchen years prior, which was initially thought to have been an apparition. The assault drives a wedge between the two fathers as Dong-ik rushes to Da-song and Ki-taek to Ki-jeong. Chung-sook, in a skirmish, is able to stab Geun-sae with a meat skewer, killing him. Dong-ik orders Ki-taek to take he and Da-song to the hospital, an order which he refuses. He tosses Dong-ik the keys which land by the body of Geun-sae. Dong-ik reaches for the keys and recoils from the smell of Geun-sae, an intolerable action to Ki-taek, whose own scent had been previously judged and called into question by the Parks. Triggered, Ki-taek grabs the idle knife from the lawn and stabs Dong-ik in the chest, killing him.
What occurs in this moment is a tragic reification of the absurd. Before Geun-sae is let loose, before Ki-woo’s descent, the family below is still abstract. The Kim family, traumatized by the previous night’s events, are stable in a hypothetical space. In the abstract, the Kims can perfectly rectify their conflict with the family in the basement as well as maintain a stable relationship with the Park family. The absurdity of their position is prolonged by their humanity to reverse any harm they’ve done and exacerbated by their financial necessity to remain employed by the Parks. When Ki-woo opens the basement door he leaves the hypothetical space and enters the real. Geun-sae’s havoc upon the Kim and Park families is a consequential retribution, however, only the Kims are of the social position to acknowledge the reality of Geun-sae’s terror; an acknowledgement that turns back on itself. Posed between two worlds, the Kims have equal knowledge of what transpires above as well as below, but with little agency over either. They become privileged spectators existing residually off the graces of the upper class but not so parasitically as Geun-sae, a manifestation of fully bottoming out. Their perspective lends utmost to fully seeing the tragedy that befalls all three families, as they play a direct part in each one. Their own loss can then be seen as an arbitration of justice, at least in the indefinite sense– justice as an arch of consequence. A realization that befalls Ki-taek as he steps away from a dying Dong-ik, forced to acknowledge a most primal and cataclysmic reaction, a result of one’s own subjectivity reflected in the rapid climax of tragedy. It is as if at that very moment, Ki-taek glimpses the real, the true value of life itself, the arbitrary and meaningless value of commodified experience, of material life. Overwhelmed by consequence, he flees.
Joon-Ho successfully leads the viewer into a tragic impasse, the cause of which is the austere and callous function of capitalism. It is the function of capitalism that ultimately drives all three families to ruin; the Parks because their wealth has obscured their integrity and made them scrupulous, the Kims because their struggle makes even the smallest taste of luxury corrosive, and Geun-sae because his desperation and abject abuse have closed him off from anything beyond the basest functions of survival and, later, vengeance. It is through the loss of humanity (and necessity of capitalism) that each family exists parasitically off the other. The Kim family, and Moon-gwang before them, slowly milk the Parks of resources they will never acknowledge and relish in their deceit. The Parks however drain their employees of labor, exploit their talents and intentions (good or bad) merely for the function of their own sustainability. The Kims are as expendable to the Parks as a lightbulb, a reality that makes their plan possible in the first place. The role of capitalism, of commodity culture, creates unsustainable and divisive modes of living. Every subject under capitalism must inhabit their world parasitically in order to survive, thinking of what can be gained from every transaction, thinking only in terms of transaction. Everything becomes capital. Time is capital. Food is capital. Sociability is capital. When every aspect of “lived experience” becomes a modicum of transaction, the space for empathy is diminished. Empathy becomes terminal. Empathy becomes a mode we must feign in order to reach the next availing transaction, to get past our next impasse of survival.
Marx historically creates the picture of exploitation as occurring from the bourgeoisie, leeching the labor of the proletariat. Late capitalism complicates Marx’s notion of exploitation irrevocably. Exploitation occurs at every level of social stratification. Gramsci touches on this point in his theory of “Cultural Hegemony” wherein hegemonic systems of domination and subordination have become too ingrained in the fabric of society (via monarchy, feudal, serfdom, etc.) to be extricated from any aspect of modernity. Adorno takes this complication even further in The Culture Industry wherein my very viewing of Joon-Ho’s film as well as my critical participation within its gaze would be complicit in a system of “mass culture,” a product of modernity that affects and commodifies nearly every aspect of experience from art to sports to one’s own imagination. Under the scrutiny of Neo-Marxism, modernity and capitalism become inextricable. Every process of survival, every arbitration of value, every experience of our own subjectivity has become codified by the symbolic functions of capital, and thus, repropagates and recirculates the commodified systems back into themselves, conscious or unconscious.
In Parasite all levels of exploitation can be seen effectively keeping within engagements of control, deceit, and insurrection. The Parks exploit their workers of their labor. The Kims (and Moon-gwang before them) exploit the Parks of their money and their trust as well as the fellow employees they sabotage into unemployment. Geun-sae, given his position of complete self-abnegation, of removal from social stratification, can only exploit the precarious services of those who tend to him, an exploitation that masquerades as desperation only insofar as his survival is concerned. Survival, however, is not exonerated under late capitalism; it is merely a condition of profit. What people will do to survive, who they will exploit, how much they will pay, how squalid and dejected they will subsist, are all conditions persistence under capitalism. Geun-sae, even in his self-made world underground, his removal from social engagement, from transaction, is still a unit of debt, a deficit of capital, a deficit that will never disappear no matter how deeply he erases himself, even in death.
When Ki-woo awakens from a coma after his assault by Geun-sae, his entire reality has been shifted. Bereft of his sister, he and his mother return to their old basement apartment where he daydreams and devises a plan to purchase the Park estate, as he intuitively knows his father to be inhabiting the basement. Late at night Ki-woo returns to the house and hides in the surrounding trees to glimpse the luxury of the living room. Inevitably, the lights outside begin to flicker in Morse code. Ki-woo transcribes the code, knowing he is taking down a message from his father. Down in the basement, Ki-taek has suffered the same fate as the pitiful Geun-sae before him. The home that once offered him prosperity becomes his prison. The slippery path out of poverty, a path mired with setbacks and risks that can completely level or bottom out those who attempt to move up in social stratification, has become reified. Ki-taek must now inhabit not only a space of abject poverty, but of trauma– a holding cell of loss, of murder, of painful remembrance. Ki-woo and Ki-taek, both dejected and bankrupt of social mobility, are subjugated to the imaginary. Joon-Ho let’s this imagination play out before the audience, only to reel it back in to the painful reality, letting both exist as tandem, but ultimately hopeless, representations.
Joon-Ho shows us a horror of class conflict, of what ignoble and perfidious actions the common individual is forced to perform in a strangulated economy. The films moves slowly through levels of derangement via desperation, with every (re)action having a causal newest low of necessity. The horror is not the man in the basement but the extrinsic properties that force and keep him there. The horror is not Ki-taek’s trajectory to murder, but the implicit acts of negation the working class are forced to subject themselves to in order to meet ends. Horror, as a genre, is not merely a detached narrative one inhabits to entertain a state of suspended disbelief. Horror only works as a genre because horror is real, because fear is real. The ingenuity in Parasite is the subversion of the typical horror denouement, instead, giving the audience an uncanny mirror to realize the actual workings of the horror itself, rather than letting the allegorical continue to drive and, potentially, obscure the delivery. Like Picasso’s “Guernica”, the viewer does not stop at the horror of the mother holding her dead child, or the trambled corpse, or the bellicose horse, but how the terms of the composition arrive at a larger conclusion. In “Guernica” it is the perverse destruction of war. In Parasite, we see the perverse destruction of capitalism.
I am reminded of my annoyance prior to the film, at the top of this essay and am exposed to the hypocrisy of my anger. Within a commodified experience our potential for enjoyment is equal to whomever also pays to consume the commodity; and because capital has become inextricable from our value system, the slightest hiccup in our experience exposes us to the absurdity of our value system, making us defensive. I chose to react with the same selfish ignorance toward the small group chatting near me as they did in their decision to treat a public space like a private one. This is to no fault of either side but merely a fault in the experience of capital that can quickly become a quagmire. Any disruption in our experience of capital can turn us quickly to the judgmental pedestrian, to the inflammatory yelper, to the acerbic patron awaiting a package, or, in Joon-Ho’s vision, the suppressed troglodyte. Our absurd trust in the process of capitalism turns us to its vicious arbiters, devouring us all the more we devour it.
The only hope against the dehumanization of capitalism is to acknowledge the absurdity of commodity before it becomes too closely interwoven with our own subjectivity. If we can separate and acknowledge absurdity we can perhaps isolate and rectify it. We can acknowledge it as a modality of lived experience that we must inhabit in order to move seamlessly along. Parasite offers a glimpse into that very absurdity, a subjectivity we can observe from the outside, a hyperbolic subjectivity only in the sense that all its symptoms and degradations occur in a span of two hours, quick enough not to be forgotten or mitigated or pacified the way it takes place in lived experience. Such is the successful effect of art, the concentrated, reification of experience made painfully or pleasurably visible. However, it is not enough to simply observe, not enough to appreciate or admire or ruminate or analyze. Art, whether in its making or in its viewing, must become praxis. Art without praxis is nothing more than commodity– something to be owned either as product or experience. “Guernica” despite its successes in representation, is now a commodified work, tucked away and guarded at all times in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia where patrons not only pay for their ephemeral experience of it but also for its imprisonment. This is the threat that capital has always had over art– in determining integrity. Art as praxis must resist this interference, must learn to subsist from connection rather than funding, must find visibility through necessity rather than the advancement of a singular, egoistic “vision.” Parasite, too, is a commodity as is the experience of its viewing– my experience and attempt to integrate its meaning into an essay being no less commodified than anyone else’s experience of it. These conditions are impossible to escape wherever there is an exchange of capital as the transaction becomes the locus of experience– the very conditions that lead to consumer frustrations, that lead to intra-class conflict, that lead to divergence.
Walking Prospect Park West in the freezing, early darkness I commiserate with meaning, I interrogate my analysis, I talk loudly to myself so as to make thought real and to hear myself over the piercing cold. I am left without answers to the defense against the integration of commodity culture. I am defenseless in my own integration as I head to the nearest bar to consume my own experience. I am also wary of absolutism as such thought has no trajectory beyond the fascistic. I am hopeful, perhaps solely, in the possibility of art to advance difficult dialogues. I am hopeful for its endurance beyond its eventual commodification under capitalism. Art is inexhaustible. Art always finds subversion, always rises, changes, postulates, pacifies, exacerbates, etc. Art is infinitely possible against structures of power because art is infinitely, transformatively human. Art is, perhaps, our only defense against the symbolic because it is of the symbolic, and the only way to destroy the oppressive holdings of the symbolic is for the symbolic to destroy itself again and again ad infinitum– to clean the distracting patina from our core, human principles. Art as praxis, praxis as the firm application to sustain, against all horror, our own subjectivity.
Eric Tyler Benick is the author of the chapbook, The George Oppen Memorial BBQ (The Operating System, 2019), as well as co-founder and editor at Ursus Americanus Press, a publisher of chapbooks. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Washington Square Review, The Vassar Review, drDoctor, No, Dear, Reality Beach, Funny Looking Dog Quarterly, Souvenir, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn.