Essay Series by:
Adam Lehrer,”Snake Repeller,” c-prints and mixed media,2019.
PART III: TROLLS OF POSTMODERNISM
You’re still alive, Todd, but I can’t help but feel like I’m talking to a ghost. You have taken on a hauntological dimension in film culture. Where did you go? You’re here, but you’re not here. You are one of a few American filmmakers to ever win an award at Cannes when Happiness debuted in 1998. And yet, you’ve been culturally extinguished into semi-obscurity. This is tragically an all too common destination for the troll. Your films forcefully confronted viewers with their liberal hypocrisy, their alienation, and their conformity. Ever the liberal pessimist, you were one of Generation X’s greatest artistic critics of the culture of conformity – what Christopher Lasch called the Culture of Narcissism – that had germinated out of consumerist neoliberalism.
But your silhouette lingers, Todd, and your body of work is a tragic reminder of a raucously perverse radicalism that defined 1990s independent cinema and has (like you) all but vanished from American filmmaking. In late modernism, this radicalism has been replaced by Marvel movies and bland Oscar bait, defining the contemporary film sensibility that critic Nick Pinkerton has called the aesthetic of “quality control”: while American movies are inoffensively “fine,” they are neither provocative, nor are they extraordinarily beautiful. You, Todd, came of age in an era of disaffection and apoliticism. Your generation abandoned hope for a better future. On the generations of digital capitalism, Italian theorist Bifo Berardi has written: “The hyper-stimulated body is simultaneously alone and hyper-connected... the cooperating brains have no collective body and the private bodies have no collective brain.” Generation X, and the generations that followed it, were left defenseless to an onslaught of exhausting stimuli with no community to grasp onto and find stability within.
And in the cyclone of that late capitalist rot, Todd, a new pop cultural nihilism found its nexus. Writers like Bret Easton Ellis and Dennis Cooper. Musicians like Nirvana and Royal Trux. Artists like Sarah Lucas and Matthew Barney. The 1990s had birthed a new kind of art, and a new kind of troll. Neoliberalism had eradicated the ability to conceptualize a future, and the best art of the era sought not to imagine a better tomorrow, but to expose the decay of the present hidden beneath the smooth, refined surfaces of the information age (or capitalism as it “seduces you with beautiful objects” to paraphrase Mark Fisher).
These conditions facilitated the genesis of a transgressive American indie cinema. You and your contemporaries, Todd, evoked themes of alienation, rage, amorality, and depression as they manifested across the American class spectrum. With Gummo, Harmony Korine offered a window into a drug-addled, mentally ill, delinquent, and maniacally boring world of rural poverty in late capitalism. Larry Clark’s Kids (co-written by Harmony, of course) harshly depicted the lives of burnt out working class urban youths devoid of future prospects and free to wreak havoc across New York.
But you, Todd, are perhaps the most intriguing filmmaker of them all, because your films seek to expose the suburban and urban upper middle classes as being equally (if not more so) replete of degraded, miserable, cruel, and morally compromised people thinly secreting their despair and rage beneath the signifiers of petit bourgeois respectability! “Solondz grafts the conventions of Leave It to Beaver family portraiture onto Sadean situations,” wrote Wayne Koestenbaum shortly after Happiness scandalized and titillated the cinephiles of the world. Suburban material comfort is not synonymous with spiritual contentment, your art suggests, financial stability can not save us from a world that places us in competition with one another from birth.
And yet, your characters were never without humanity! Even the most heinous among them is, fundamentally, a human being, trying their damndest to function amongst the dysfunctional. Beneath all your trollish nihilism and contempt, there is a humanist core. In your refusal to depict “bad” people as one-dimensional caricatures, your stories hit close to home. Your characters are us and we are them.
I just rewatched Welcome to the Dollhouse, Todd. It’s enduringly provocative as an entertaining coming of age dark comedy that hints at something more sinister and tragic. Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo), an 11-year old, homely, suburban school girl, is your heroine. Through her eyes, middle school becomes a hilariously hallucinatory nightmare projection of our most traumatic adolescent memories. But it is Brandon, the film’s complicated bully turned love interest portrayed by Brendan Sexton III, that best hints at the sensibility that would come to define your cinema. We meet Brandon as an insidious child brute, who threatens, attempts, and fails to “rape” (the film implies that these concepts are above these children’s heads) Dawn, before that ugly encounter develops into an almost tender teenage romance. By the end of the movie, Brandon is a heartbreaking, sweet boy in deep pain, a product of poverty and abuse. What often masquerades in your cinema as misanthropy is actually closer to something resembling a commitment to forgiveness.
Perhaps an even better – and certainly a more troubling – example of this filmic philosophy of yours would be the family man Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker) in your arguable masterpiece Happiness. Bill is a pedophile who rapes two of his 11-year-old son’s friends throughout the film. Bill is reprehensible, but his despicable nature isn’t solely what makes us squirm. No, Todd, what chills us to the bone are the glimmers of humanity that exist within this vile man. You never take the easy road, Todd, and your film’s true power is not in its portrayal of the pedophile as pure evil, but in its portrayal of the pedophile as one specific manifestation of a spiritually dead society that we are all a part of. We are all broken, and we all try our best. When Bill’s son asks him if Bill would have raped him, and Bill responds by saying, “No you’re my son, I would have jerked off,” the viewer finds him or herself most troubled by an empathy for Bill that becomes harder to repress. “I never want to soften the truth of what a character is,” you once said in a taped interview. “But the hope is that by the end of the film the audience will come to look at him a different way, that for all their obnoxiousness there is a human pulse, that is struggling.” Even your most heinous characters are mirrors that reflect the ugliest parts of ourselves back onto us, but you demand we see beauty all the same!
Many filmmakers take their critics to task, but few do so with the force of your gleefully trollish sadism. One of my favorite films of yours, Storytelling, takes the ideology of middle class liberals to task through a formal experiment. You combined two thematically connected but narratively distinct stories into one cinematic experience. Part one, entitled ‘Fiction,’ follows a young socially conscious white woman named Vi (Selma Blair) studying creative writing at university and struggling in her romantic relationship with a classmate with cerebral palsy, named Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick). After a fight with the boyfriend, she actively seeks out her black, macho, famous novelist professor (Mr. Scott, portrayed by Robert Wisdom), and has a traumatic sexual encounter with him. After writing a short story about the experience, she is called out for her sexual fetishization of the professor, coming into contact with the limits and hypocrisy of her own political beliefs. Part Two, ‘Non-Fiction’, follows Paul Giamatti as Toby Oxman, a liberal documentary filmmaker looking for his break as he directs a film about post-Columbine American high schools through the perspective of an alienated teenage boy named Scooby (Mark Webber). Oxman claims to have great empathy for his subject, but you expose his cynicism; when the documentary premieres, Scooby walks into the screening and finds an audience of similarly liberal urbanites laughing hysterically at Scooby’s sincere declaration of his hopes and dreams. Todd, you are a master at locating the fluidity between empathy and exploitation!
You’ve released a host of good to great films since, Todd, to ever decreasing critical and commercial notice. But this is one of the downsides of the life of a troll. When your critique hits too close to home, the subjects of that criticism combust. They simply can’t endure it, Todd! They’ve constructed great walls around their psyches, insulating themselves from the hypocrisies of their beliefs and lifestyles, and your films detonate those walls, leaving your targets lost amongst the rubble of their shattered illusions and egos.
Michel, I’m sure we disagree about many things, but I think we have one profound agreement: something in our society is rotten. Dead, even. We’ve lost something. Community destroyed by consumerism. Loyalty abolished by hedonism. Slavoj Zizek, a Marxist admirer of yours (there are more of them than you’d expect), said that your book The Elementary Particles was “the most devastating portrait of the sexual revolution of the 1960s”: “[Houellebecq] shows how permissive hedonism turns into the obscene superego universe of the obligation to enjoy.” Michel, no other artist in the 21st Century has more vividly illustrated the compatibility between cultural liberalism and free market capitalism. Your characters, lonely and dejected middle aged men, grapple with a society that no longer places any value on our social bonds: family, camaraderie, love.
A lot of your novels end in suicide, Michel... In your work, suicide all too horrifically makes perfect sense. Your protagonists attempt to find meaning while living in liquid modernity, where meaning has cratered beneath the crushing forces of the market. You have dedicated your career to capturing the specific social alienation and misery that saturates Western life at the “End of History.” This, Michel, is the tragic essence of your art!
Your characters have been robbed of values and beliefs to fight for. Robbed of any semblance of meaning that could give their life purpose or cohesion. This, I believe, explains why you’ve found a fan base within the Marxist left. We agree, you and I, that life in consumer culture is unbearably empty. Devoid of values and love. To simplify this notion further, I’ll paraphrase the host of the Red Scare podcast Anna Khachiyan, who said, “Houellebecq simply asks if love is even possible in late capitalism.” The answer you always come down on, Michel, is “no, it’s not.”
You are not averse to less sophisticated (albeit no less incisive) acts of trolling, either Michel, but your controversial acts outside the realms of literature are validated by the utter contempt that they “inspire” within the cultural elite! In a more recent example, you penned an essay for Harper’s with a title that was surely deliberately selected to cause the liberal brain to combust: Donald Trump is a Good President. Numerous publishing world liberals had a meltdown, even though the argument you made within the piece was framed as a critique of the US as “benevolent imperialist power,” and THAT is why liberals could not prevent themselves from plummeting into moral outrage over it. It forced them to acknowledge their role in manufacturing consent on behalf of war and global misery.
The primary mode of the liberal brain is projection; they refuse to accept blame for the failures of their technocracy. They blame Donald Trump. They blame Vladimir Putin for giving us Donald Trump. They blame you for not caring about Donald Trump’s rise to power. The most artful act of trolling is one that makes its targets confront what they’ve known about themselves but have refused to reckon with.
A friend of mine, the artist Mathieu Malouf, told me that your right wing leanings are but one component of a “larger rejection of the world and its suffering.” Like your heroes Lovecraft and Schopenhauer before you, you are perhaps the last world famous author to render such a brutally negative and “cosmically pessimistic” conception of society. The cultural elite reviles your work and its critique of the spiritual decay of contemporary life because it’s true. It’s true, and you implicate them and their role in social rot. They know they’re guilty, and they hate you for it!
Adam Lehrer,”'Charcuterie,” c-prints and mixed media, 2020.
Kanye, I want to briefly tell you that your voice matters now, more than ever. My pop awareness developed in the 1990s; the last era when provocative artists and idiosyncratic trolls with global platforms became vessels for discourse concerning the most controversial social and political issues of their day. Tupac. Cobain. Ice Cube. Madonna. Marilyn Manson! These artists’ controversies inspired discussion around the decade’s most pressing political and social issues: police brutality, street crime, feminism, suicide, depression, school shootings. Through their art, we understood our world. The 1990s was the last hurrah for pop cultural figures who doubled as public intellectuals and social critics.
This concept has been abolished. While most of our great contemporary artists are, to one degree or another, relegated to cult audiences of various sizes, our major celebrity artists seem to fall into one of two categories, if you’ll allow me to be reductive. There is the PR-insulated, brand constructed Taylor Swift/Beyoncé kind, where all authenticity or free thought is buried under a team approved marketing strategy designed to be inoffensive and dull. And then there is the degenerate philistine superstar, like Tekashi 6ixX9ine or the late XXXTentacion, who courts controversy without content. A true troll doesn’t relish in delinquent behavior without purpose; his controversies are propelled by ideological intention and are waged to generate societal discussions about art, philosophy, and politics. The provocation of the troll is potent. Like Ketamine or LSD, it forces us to question the nature of reality itself.
In 2020, we only have one pop troll of this magnitude. We only have one troll whose art and public image is a discourse machine unto itself. Only one superstar whose presence constantly contradicts the hegemonic ideology of the mainstream and forces us to confront the flaws in our thinking. And that troll is you, Kanye.
You’re the last of your kind. No other star of your stature has remained so ruthlessly committed to the production of high quality art and the principles of free thought. Admittedly, Kanye, I wasn’t an early convert of yours. It wasn’t until hearing the evocative and melancholically distorted R&B of 808z and Heartbreaks, the egomaniacal and grandiose pop mastery of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and the ferociously schizophrenic and addictive industrial rap of Yeezus that I realized that you weren’t just a genius, but perhaps the greatest artist of the 21st Century. Kanye, these records pioneered new pop forms!
While you’re not a lyrical virtuoso on the level of an Earl Sweatshirt or a Freddie Gibbs, you still manage to produce language full of manically poetic sloganeering: “I put my fist in her like a civil rights sign,” you rap, managing to converge tacky misogyny, libidinal abjection, and political radicalism in one tight bar. You liquidate these cutting poeticisms into gorgeous and glorious landscapes of sumptuous sound! I have friends who play in subterranean noise bands with little empathy for contemporary pop, and even they are in awe of the ferocity of your talent!
You’ve always had an uncanny talent to generate controversy and force the masses to pay attention. To paraphrase what the theorist Nina Power recently said on a podcast, “No artist in history has been able to channel the zeitgeist to the extent that Kanye has.” Too true, ‘Ye, the culture seems to flow through and out of you. You create it, and shape it. You respond to it. Kanye West and “the culture” are one and the same!
And of course the liberal mainstream was all too happy to embrace you when your controversies suited their purposes (“George Bush doesn’t care about black people”). And now, they smear you! The soft racism being peddled your way is disgusting, Kanye. They have to tell themselves that you are running for president because you’re “ill” and don’t understand how “evil” Donald Trump is. But what they really demand is your conformity, and you boldly refuse to give it to them. And what the liberal elite shows us when they attack you and others, like Azealia Banks, is that they don’t care about simply “listening to black voices,” as they often insist. They demand we “listen to black voices that agree with them.”
I’m not denying that you probably do suffer from mental illness, Kanye, after all you’ve repeatedly told us that you do (“I hate being bi-polar it’s awesome”). But that is hardly enough justification to dismiss your ideas all together. The real reason that you inspire so much rage and hatred, Kanye, is that you see through their bullshit. Your instincts are sharp. I don’t know if you are actually a right winger or not (you once said in an interview with Charlamagne the God that you wanted to run a “Trump style campaign on Bernie Sanders principles”), but I will always admire your refusal to play by the rules of their game. How many of our great thinkers and artists would be “cancelled” if they lived today? Artaud? Francis Bacon? Joseph Conrad? All of them? You though, Kanye, are “uncancellable!”
I have friends who think that you’re our David Bowie, which makes sense. But if there is one troll in history who occupied a similar role within his culture, it was Oscar Wilde. You are our Oscar Wilde, Kanye. An amoral aesthete, dedicated to art and beauty above all. Camille Paglia has said that, contrary to modern critics’ beliefs, Wilde was not a liberal moralist until well after his decline as an artist and a thinker. “He was a late romantic elitist, in the Baudelarian manner,” says Paglia. “Arrogantly turning life into public theater, Wilde became drama’s ancient ritual scapegoat.” Kanye, you then are our “late capitalist elitist,” turning digital discourse into your theater, casting yourself as its complicated and compelling star. You remind us that the artist doesn’t owe us moral guidance, he owes us art. You are the scapegoat, the funnel for our outrage. But that outrage leads to discussion, Kanye, and discussion can lead to greater wisdom. Kanye, the superstar poet and irascible troll, may your star burn brighter yet.
Adam Lehrer, ”Male Heroin (passive male sufferer),” c-prints and mixed media, 2019.
Follow Adam:Instagram: @adamlehreruptown