Olympathy for Pretentious People

August 12, 2008

For the first time in my life, I am actually enjoying Olympic coverage. That’s because, for the first time, coverage isn’t limited to what Thomas Paine called the “tyranny of the tube”. NBCOlympics.com has been providing live streaming coverage of a multitude of sports, all at a click’s length. While the live coverage is only reinforcing my nocturnal lifestyle, the difference is unquestionable. For one, I don’t have to be force-fed taped Olympic coverage through the television stations focusing on America-centric competition. Besides, I don’t care less about Michael Phelps or track and field… even gymnastics have lost their luster. I want to watch handball, badminton, fencing… futbol. But the best part of the online coverage is how wonderfully bare-bones it is: there are no talking heads, no flashy graphics, no blocks of commercials (except for some offensively bad spots by GE), there’s not even any commentary. All you hear is the sound of the game, the mingling of languages, the swelling audience. Visually, the shots are surprisingly well composed, and the usual replays and close-ups render the sports as a naturalistic aesthetic experience (compared to the artificial grotesqueness of a Super Bowl).

Personally, I’m captivated by the details… by the Spanish pep-talk given by the Brazilian Handball coach, by the eyeliner on a female Hungarian Handball player, by the way an injured Japanese Judo fighter was carried away like a cradled baby, by a Korean fencer’s lime green nail polish, by the bloody hair of a Kiwi Field Hockey player and the star forward telling his goalie “it’s me and you” after a win, by the syncopation of whistles… I could go on. For an added effect, I like to play music along with the live footage, providing rich atmosphere and subtext whenever the rhythm of music complements the rhythm of athletics. Case in point: the tense last minute of the women’s individual foil gold medal match set to the drumscapes of Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick”, or the Brazilian soccer team’s final counterattack and goal accompanied by the Cadenza from the Adagio of Rodrigo’s “Concerto de Aranjuez”. At this exact moment, A women’s soccer match between North Korea and Germany is being illuminated by Charles Mingus. I’m cheering for North Korea, since their players are more likely to be sent to a labor camp for losing.

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The Tyrant Poet and the Aesthetics of Genocide

July 23, 2008

Blazing the headlines this week: Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was arrested in Belgrade for committing war crimes during the Bosnian War in the 90s. These crimes include killing at least 7,500 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica during an ethnic cleansing campaign in 1995, shelling Sarajevo during a 43 month siege, and using 284 U.N. peace keepers as human shields -an impressive criminal resume. Karadzic will be facing the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague. Rather than focusing on the Bosnian conflict and all the craziness in Yugoslavia (Slavoj Zizek gave a fantastically rambling lecture on the overall nature of the Yugoslavian conflict and NATO’s intervention that’s worth reading), I want to digress on the absurd circumstances of his capture and his characteristic intellectualism.

Unlike Saddam Hussein, who was sucked out of a hole in the ground, Karadzic was arrested in Belgrade, living as Dragan Dabic, a bearded alternative medicine practitioner. Rather than be a fugitive, Karadzic simply assumed a new identity, playing the character of Dragan Dabic to its logical limits. Dragan Dabic successfully ran a private alternative medicine practice, living and moving about comfortably, without security, in Belgrade.

Dr. Dabic was a proponent of “Human Quantum Energy”. In fact, he emerged as a local leader in alternative medicine, giving lectures at alternative health symposiums, making appearances on TV Shows, publishing articles in magazines… He even maintained his own personal website, which offers special trinkets, including a necklace described thusly: “This necklace is for personal protection. It is worn on the chest at the height of the fourth chakra and thymus gland, the gland of youth and immune system. It harmonizes the energies of the aura and the physical body, protects from harmful rays … If you hold it in the palm of your hand for a few minutes it causes a turbulence of energy of the chakra, heats up, and vibrates even though it is not battery powered.”… The way in which a dictator that started a campaign to “terrorize and demoralize the Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat population” that left over 200,000 dead and millions displaced managed to disappear completely into the image of a friendly, well-adjusted, holistic healer that “gave lectures comparing meditation and silent techniques practiced by Orthodox monks” reaches the limit of dark comedy. It is so disturbingly absurd that the only way I can respond is by laughing.

It’s no surprise that Karadzic pulled off this kooky doctor cover; before being a murderous tyrant, Karadzic graduated from medical school and eventually became a psychiatrist. But the holistic healer guise is particularly absurd because it’s an embodiment of Karadzic’s aesthetic antithesis… Aesthetics? What Aesthetics!? Well… turns out that Karadzic is also a published poet.

Suffice to say that Karadzic wasn’t the Rimbaud type. His poems are generally very disturbing, suffused with ego-maniacal messianism, self-adoration, and destructive imagery. Take his poem titled “Sarajevo”:

I hear the misfortune threads
Turned into a beetle as if an old singer
Is crushed by the silence and turned into a voice.

The town burns like a piece of incense
In the smoke rumbles our consciousness.
Empty suits slide down the town.
Red is the stone that dies, built into a house. The Plague!

Calm. The army of armed poplar tree
Marches up the hill, within itself.
The aggressor air storms our souls
and once you are human and then you are an air creature.

I know that all of these are the preparations of the scream:
What does the black metal in the garage have for us?
Look how fear turned into a spider
Looking for the answer at his computer.

In reference to this poem and the shelling of Sarajevo, Karadzic remarks: (the translation seems to be off?)

There is a poem of mine about Sarajevo. The title was “Sarajevo,” and first line was “I can hear disaster walking. City is burning out like a tamyan in a church.” In this smoke, there is our conscious of that. And a squad of armed topola—armed trees. Everything I saw armed, everything I saw in terms of a fight, in terms of war, in terms of—in army terms. That was 20, 23 years ago, that I have written this poem, and many other poems have something of prediction, which frightens me sometimes [laughter].

Here it’s evident that Karadzic’s messianism begins as a fulfillment of prophecy, in other words, a vain sublimation of sociopathic fantasies. The God complex is even more glaring in this untitled poem:

This fateful hour stiffened and reached the sky
Like a tree it now binds all existence in its branches
I am the cause of universal distress
A certain knight called Moses secretly fears me
From this fateful hour hours pass by upward like my head
And you are bound by some chilly
By some frosty terror
It’s only the snake-like world that changed-its dirty skin
For the moment
It is only I who sprouted from the Universe like the morning star
And the Universe blushed with envy and changed colors
It is only cowards eating their cowardice
And their non-existent strength
It is I speaking and burning
I won’t be silent after all
And let the crowd go to the devil past redemption
I’ll handle you in no time
And without much ado
And right at this moment
A tomcat shall peep at the neighborhood kitty through a chink
And two lovers
Shall stand by the first casket on hand
And kiss each other as I command

If you are interested, the links to the poems feature several other poems. I’ve used my “favorite” of these in this entry… But what do these poems say about Karadzic’s aesthetic ideas?

Walter Benjamin, in his influential essay called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” argues that “all efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war.” Being that this essay was published in 1936, during the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, Benjamin links the aesthetization of politics directly with nationalistic fascism. Perhaps the earliest voice for such a war aesthetic (and fascist art) is Italian Futurist F.T. Marinetti. In a manifesto about the Ethiopian Colonial war, Marinetti wrote:

War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages, and many others…Poets and artists of Futurism! …remember these principles of an aesthetics of war so that your struggle for a new literature and a new graphic art … may be illumined by them.

Through the aesthetization of war, the Futurists sought to figuratively destroy the fetters of the past, the hands of history, the forms of memory. In that sense, Karadzic is the Fascist Futurist ideal: the tyrant-warrior poet that sought to destroy history and memory in the most palpable way possible, through genocide. Following this logic, Karadzic may have hoped the Bosnian War to be his Symphonie Phantastique. That such gruesome and cruel reality be equated with the transcendence of art may be a symptom of our hyper-capitalist modernity, where self-alienation (as Benjamin wrote) “has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”

– s