Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Radio City

I’m the antenna catching vibration
You’re the transmitter, give information
I’m the transmitter, I give information
You’re the antenna catching vibration

– Kraftwerk, “Antenna”

Kim's other obsession

As a follow-up to my previous post, I thought I’d share this (out of print) record, called Radio Pyongyang: Commie Funk and Agit Pop from the Hermit Kingdom, put out by Sublime Frequencies in 2005. Anyone familiar with that label knows that their releases tend to mystify rather than demystify – perhaps appropriately, for our purposes. This isn’t an ethnomusicological document, but a cabinet of curiosities. And how curious!

Here’s the label’s blurb:

“Schmaltzy synthpop, Revolutionary rock, Cheeky child rap, and a healthy dose of hagiography for Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, this is the now NOW sound of North Korea! A hermit kingdom with a rich folk history and an even richer tradition in over-the-top praise for the ruling House of Kim, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains a diplomatic thorn and a culture never Neverland. Boasting a heady mix of Stalin opera, Tokyo karaoke and brooding impressionism, the sound of present-day Pyongyang distills into warped agit-pop and lost-in-time commie funk. If you’ve ever wondered what goes on in North Korean music, this is your vehicle for exploration. Christiaan Virant has visited this mysterious land and has assembled this amazing audio collage. Captured within are rare live recordings from various performances and mass games demonstrations, sounds lifted from People’s Army television dramas, samples from hard-to-find CD releases obtained in the capital, and of course, news reports from the “real” Radio Pyongyang, which continues to broadcast to this day, albeit under the new, strikingly anodyne moniker “Voice of Korea”.

The “lost-in-time,” improvisatory and schizophrenic nature of North Korea shines brilliantly in this dizzying palimpsest. Totally synthetic approximations of future-pop collide with bits of triumphalist, martial Opera to create a magnificent soundtrack for the Sci-Fi State. I love that phrase, “agit pop,” as well; music is so much more effective as a weapon of affective manipulation than text (you can’t close your ears). I imagine this music being broadcast over Pyongyang like a kind of ideological radiation, soaking into the pores of the capital’s youth…

download HERE

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Science fiction is, and has always been, obsessed with fictive States: techno-dystopias, post-apocalyptic juntas, chemically policed narco-utopias. Real-life totalitarian regimes, however, are usually approached with dread and ellipsis, and have been aligned with the most grimly realist of genres (e.g., concentration camp fiction). But what if our perspective of totalitarian regimes themselves were refocused through the kaleidoscopic lens of hyper-speculative science fiction? What if, for instance, we went could transition from speaking about “North Korean science fiction,” an anomalous subject in its own right, to “North Korea as science fiction”?

This was the proposal made by Seo Young-Chu in a fascinating talk, introducing the film Pulgasari at NYU in late February. In her book Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation (Harvard, 2010), she attempts to reimagine science fiction as “high intensity realism” rather than an escapist unrealism, “a mimetic discourse whose objects are nonimaginary yet cognitively estranging.” Sci-fi is not antithetical to mimesis but works through “a combination of lyric and narrative forces” to “generate mimetic accounts of cognitively estranging referents” (3, 73). The “cognitively estranging referent” is the native subject of science fiction, in her analysis. Such a referent is one that eludes “simple,” naturalistic representation: the wondrous, the repressed, the uncanny, the ineffably other (5ff).

In this way, sci-fi does something like the Freudian dreamwork: it rearranges our neuroses in ways that are distorted enough for them to become palatable. The work of science fiction is often the work of trauma, operating by necessarily insufficient approximations. But in the view of Seo Young-Chu, these are not exactly fantastical, since “trauma is always already science-fictionalized;” she quotes trauma expert Judith Lewis Herman as saying that the experience of trauma “gives rise to complicated, sometimes uncanny alterations of consciousness” (156). If political trauma is the cognitively estranging referent, it makes sense that its representation would resemble science fiction.

The talk began with a second person “tour,” revealed after the fact to be an almost verbatim pastiche cobbled from various accounts of North Korea, from travel guides to history books. “Uncanny alterations of consciousness” seem to be the norm here: Pyongyang is a “surreal theme park,” a “stage set,” symmetrical and sparklingly clean, sometimes as garish and pointlessly monumental as Las Vegas but also a “ghost city” that is so quiet at night that you can hear the purring of coal-powered automobiles for miles down the mostly desolate highways. The denizens, each of whom has an individual “reliability rating,” seem like mass-produced robots, outfitted with the same mass-produced costumes. The exact same image of a smiling Kim Il-Sung hangs everywhere above them. You can see his body, housed in a glass sarcophagus, though only at the appointed time, and not without passing security checks, disinfection, and powerful air blowers.

This might all be true, but there’s a way in which the prose ineluctably drifts into the territory of science-fiction. And indeed, North Korea has been richly mined by sci-fi proper, from David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas to the Bond film Die Another Day to the Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries digital lit piece “Miss DMZ” –  all discussed by Seo Young-Chu, who ably demonstrated that science fictional representation of North Korea has become the default mode.

She speculated upon a variety of reasons why this might be the case: it may be an overcompensation for the virtual “poverty” of representations of the “hermit kingdom,” a response to the uncanniness of North Korea’s anachronistic, otherworldly existence in a universe where the Cold War never ended, or it could be a mutated species of Orientalism (or even “self-Orientalism,” a curious but provocative phrase she seemed to regret as soon as she uttered it).

What she didn’t explicitly suggest was that, perhaps, the science fictionality of North Korea begins with the Kim regime and with the “Juche idea” itself (that “opaque core of North Korean national solipsism,” Bruce Cumings calls it). The way this works akin to, but in the end very distinct from, the way all countries utilize and repackage exogenous representations to sell themselves as fictions to tourists and other onlookers. Quaint villagers in Southeast Asia are paid to dress as old-fashioned peasants for Westerners; Western Europe sells a storybook fabrication of itself through heritage tourism; the United States has entire cultural industries that serve the purpose. What is distinct about the autofictions of the “hermit kingdom” and other “closed states,” to use an expedient term, is that they are directed primarily inward. An allegory: Pyongyang’s tallest building, a luxury hotel, is not designed to dazzle foreign tourists like the grand establishments of Dubai, because foreign tourists are not encouraged to visit Pyongyang. In fact, it’s not even habitable, and never was. It exists only as a scar on the skyline, a masterpiece of unconsciously deconstructivist architecture, a monument to monumentality. It is a fictional edifice.

All nationalisms are essentially fictions. But what happens to the fiction of the nation state in a totalitarian regime, promoted and maintained through a cult of personality, with a highly centralized system of communication and information exchange? In a place like North Korea, the “imagined community” as it exists in official representations of the State derives principally from the myopic, bizarre millenarian fantasies of a dictator. If there is a dialectic process of circulation at all it tends to be confined to the channels of the bureaucracy, forming a closed loop, like the networks of communication in Franz Kafka’s The Castle.

So when we see such States as sci-fi or as speculative fictions, we are only following their lead. Moreover, the relevant realms of fictional representation are not confined to statecraft: dictators seem to have an uncanny fondness for pulp, fantasy, and sci-fi. Adolf Hitler, for instance, was famously fond of the movie King Kong, released the year he was appointed Chancellor. And Kim-Jong Il, as it turns out, is both North Korea’s supreme leader and its supreme cineaste. With a science-fictional theory of millenarian/”revolutionary” dictatorships, it is more than a happy coincidence or a curiosity that he is the author of a portentous volume entitled On the Art of the Cinema.

In fact, Kim’s obsession with the art form went to such lengths that he kidnapped his favorite director, the South Korean Shin Sang-ok, and forced him to make a “socialist Godzilla movie” that would enhance the reputation of North Korean cinema. The result was Pulgasari, which can be viably read as an anti-capitalist film, but which seems more poignant as a coded critique of the Kim regime itself.

The monster in this film is almost too good a metaphor for the authoritarian post-Leninist Revolutionary project: it leads a “backward” population at mercurial speed to overthrow the ancien régime, and continues growing by furiously consuming iron at the ultimate expense of the people. This seems to me an allegory of the famines caused by the fetishization of industry and steel manufacture that gripped post-Stalinist modernizers like a Marinettian fever dream. Once he consumes all of the iron, Pulgasari is at once “savior” and “enemy”: their liberator, their god, but also a nihilistic, Molochian machine fueled by the obsessive weaponization of raw materials. In short, he is the Kim regime personified. But the great leader, who is not a cognitively estranging referent to himself, was pleased with the film he had sired at gunpoint: “When the movie was delivered to Kim, he saw it as a great victory. Trucks pulled up to Shin Films to unload pheasants, deer and wild geese for the movie crew to feast on.” Most North Koreans are severely malnourished.


“…because fact and fiction sometimes blur in Libyan politics, I might be accused of exaggeration… The domestic policies of the Libyan regime have often bordered on fiction.” – Mansour O. EL-Kikhia, Libya’s Qaddafi: The Politics of Contradiction

“I will now tell you the story of my experiences when I made that journey, that escape to hell. I will describe the road that leads there, describe hell itself for you, and tell you how I came back by the same way. It was truly an adventure, and one of the strangest true stories ever, and I swear to you that it is not fiction.” – Muammar Gaddafi, “Escape to Hell”

So much for North Korea, but half a world away, another megalomaniac is busy constructing hyperreality out of midnight-movie pastiche. When Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was faced with the first serious challenge to his thirty-year reign, he was simply unable to absorb events into the fictive narrative within which he understood his place in history. Because such events could not happen in the hyperreal Libya of Gaddafi’s imagination, actual state policy was to proceed as if they were not happening. Soon after the unrest began, Gaddafi took to state television, “charging that Osama bin Laden had drugged the town’s youth into a rebellious frenzy.” A classic exploitation plot: replace Osama bin Laden with “the Russians” and you have a half a dozen science fiction films from the 1950s.

The official ideology of Libya is jamahiriya, which translates to “state of the masses.” The system outlined in The Green Book, the founding text of Gaddafi’s Libya, describes a politics not unlike syndicalism or council communism (from what I can gather; it’s not the most cogent thing ever written and I am not motivated to reread it). In theory, Gaddafi has no power. This is why he told Christiane Amanpour that he cannot “step down,” because in the Gaddafian ideology he is not a ruler, but the liberator and savior of a free Libya. These are not “lies,” they are fictions. The realist approach to studying North Korea and Libya has only produced bafflement and confusion. Perhaps hyperreal regimes, which conjoin fact and fantasy, require theories of resistance based on a kind of hyperrealpolitik.

Gaddafi’s is what Libyan scholar Mansour O. EL-Kikhia calls an “idiosyncratic ideology,” a syncretic bricolage attempting to overcome a heavy anxiety of political influence with the use of improvised, localized mythologies. Gaddafi fused “Nasserism and classical Marxism, along with Islamic socialism” into the “Third International Theory,” as outlined in his Green Book. Such ideologies are “experimental” in nature, which is to say, they are speculative fictions: works in progress. In Libya’s case, it is “cemented together by the colonel’s complex personality.” The idiosyncratic dictator is an authoritarian and an author, and the nation is his text. Gaddafi’s words are not (or not only) ridiculous, because like the plot of a science fiction novel they are only meant to cohere to their own fantastic premises. Emendations and retractions can be made as required.

One of these men has written a short story about space travel.

But Muammar Gaddafi doesn’t just play a sci-fi writer on television. He’s the author of Escape to Hell and Other Stories (1998), a curious volume which veers uncomfortably between hyperbolic political allegory and madcap fiction. The description on the jacket of the English printing is a vindication of Seo Young-Chu’s argument about science fictional representation: “Muammar Quaddafi’s short stories and essays in this book are more revealing about his vision of the world than all of his addresses and the articles and reports that have been written about him during the last 25 years.”

I think this is quite true, but alas, it has received almost no serious attention. Why does the work linger in such obscurity? Why do the few reviews that exist of it seem almost embarrassed of themselves? Why does the New York Public Library require it to be read under “supervised use”? “Dictator lit,” as a review in The Guardian styles it, is indeed an uncomfortable genre, and just the proposition of Gaddafi’s “fiction” is dually repulsive: revolting, like Mein Kampf, but also frivolous, like Stalin’s insipid poetry. In fact, it’s too preposterous to truly affront, and too bizarre to be boring. But while it is one of those books that one likes to amuse guests with, it is not merely an oddity.

Of course, it is odd. Suicidal astronauts? “Jewish satellites” taken down by the power of mass prayer? Pathetic entreaties to respect “the earth’s bounty” by a the leader of an oil kingdom? Hand-wringing ruminations on the gender of death? The discovery of “Amelica” by an Arab prince? The line between sarcasm and solipsism is difficult to discern. Certain broad tendencies, however, are impossible to ignore.

Escape to Hell opens with a harangue against urban life, the Fritz Langian bleakness of which is paralleled only by the anxious, mephitic metropolises of dystopian, futurist science fiction. The “Hell” of the title both is and is not the city; even if the latter is vile, “how beautiful is hell compared to your city!” City inhabitants are like rats and mice, scurrying emotionlessly, like the robot inhabitants of sci-fi Pyongyang: “City people do not address one another as fellow social beings or even human entities, but as ‘You, who live in apartment number x on floor number x…telephone number x, license plate on car number is x’ and so on.” The city is “a filthy tomb,” with “no moon or sun,” perpetually dark like the sci-fi cities of Blade Runner or A.I..

Gaddafi’s hyperbolic, delusional contempt for urban life and his identification with a non-existant “people” located somewhere in an amorphous Arcadian hinterland makes his aerial bombings of his own cities consistent with his fictional prognoses, in which agitated urban throngs are literally mentally disturbed, unearthly creatures. The city dweller is not a “true human being” (48), but some kind of uncanny specter. To Gaddafi, a place like Benghazi must seem like a pestilent sore, a tumor requiring irradiation – especially after the supposed recent invasion of the “Qaeda” body snatchers.

There is, of course, a long and diverse tradition of reactionary pseudo-populism which identifies the city with bodily infection, as in the pithy remark of Thomas Jefferson (who, in the interest of civic health, moved his nation’s capital from Manhattan to a pestilent, malarial swamp): “The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.” Gaddafi says much the same thing, but in the mode of frenzied science fiction rather than political aphorism: “[The city] stretches out in every direction, limitlessly. It becomes a parasite to everything around it, spreading its poisonous tentacles, killing fresh air by turning oxygen into carbon dioxide, which is then turned into carbon monoxide.” Here we have what Seo Young-Chu describes as a staple of science-fictional writing: the literalization of metaphor. The city is not merely a metaphorical “sore” on the “body politic,” but a veritable engine of miasma and molecular disintegration.

This recourse to technobabble is not an aberration. Consider the following passage from The Green Book, which is not trying to resemble science fiction, but nevertheless does:

If a community of people wears white on a mournful occasion and another dresses in black, then one community would like white and dislike black and the other would like black and dislike white. Moreover, this attitude leaves a physical effect on the cells as well as on the genes in the body. This adaptation, will be transmitted by inheritance. The inheritors automatically reject the colour rejected by the legator as a result of inheriting the sentiment of their legator.

A common formula for him: a practically nonsensical political claim is asserted as a self-evident axiom, and then reinforced with a nonsensical appeal to the authority of scientific knowledge. In this case, the “knowledge” is a bizarre admixture of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and the things you hear from drunken street prophets, but no matter. The esoteric specificity of sci-fi writing is part of what gives it its “high intensity” aura. The worlds summoned up can seem realer than our own; the futures projected can propel themselves backward to us in affective waves of uncanny retrocausality. This is how prophecy works, as well, and Gaddafi is duly dubbed “a revolutionary and a prophet” in the translator’s introduction.

Unfortunately, prophets have a marked obsession with the end times. Understanding how they will navigate their apocalypses will require a hyperrealpolitik amenable to fantastic speculation.

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Barack Obama, who channels him in so many ways, has credited him with helping “to restore a sense of optimism in our country, a spirit that transcended politics, that transcended even the most heated arguments of the day.” A recent poll has Americans voting him the greatest President of all time. We’re not talking about Lincoln, but Ronald Reagan, whose achievements include disempowering the American worker, facilitating the establishment of a financial kleptocracy, helping cause the 1987 and 2007 financial crises, and keeping right-wing dictatorships propped up by funding death squads, paramilitary armies, and terrorist gangs (the “Contra” half of Iran-Contra, which has never been given the attention it deserves). His obscene swelling of the deficit and his mammoth spending increases should make him the enemy of current “small government” conservatives, but perhaps dementia is contagious. His contemporary neoliberal zealot Margaret Thatcher is widely loathed in Great Britain, but the voices murmuring in opposition to the cult of Reagan are quite muted. Why is this?

The apotheosis of Ronald Reagan by both parties is a prime indicator of the sickly degeneration and spectacularization of American politics. The genius of Reagan was his sense of theatricality; his history as an actor is not a coincidence but is essential to his political legacy. To sell people policies completely opposed to their own interests requires the rhetorical tact of a professional, and in the (post)modern age ideology must be buttressed by iconography. J.G. Ballard explains:

In his commercials Reagan used the smooth, teleprompter-perfect tones of the TV auto-salesman to project a political message that was absolutely the reverse of bland and reassuring. A complete discontinuity existed between Reagan’s manner and body language, on the one hand, and his scarily simplistic far-right message on the other. Above all, it struck me that Reagan was the first politician to exploit the fact that his TV audience would not be listening too closely, if at all, to what he was saying, and indeed might well assume from his manner and presentation that he was saying the exact opposite of the words actually emerging from his mouth.

This passive credulity, amazingly, extended to the response by Republican delegates to Ballard’s classic text, “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” distributed with the title redacted at the 1980 Republican National Convention. Just as they could later listen to “Born in the USA” as a banal patriotic anthem, many recipients of the pamphlet took Ballard’s disturbing piece at face value. “I’m told,” Ballard said, “that it was accepted for what it resembled, a psychological position paper on the candidate’s subliminal appeal, commissioned from some maverick think tank.”

Contra (no pun intended) the frequently-voiced lament that our country is excessively suffused with irony, it would seem that for a lot us, irony is in perilously short supply. On another level, however, the delegates were not merely fools, because Ballard’s piece is generically somewhat distinct from satire, due to what Mark Fisher aka k-punk has called its “flatness.” His tone is “not that of (satirical) exaggeration, but is a kind of (simulated) extrapolation;” it is diagnostic rather than parodic.

“Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” was written in 1968 and is often cited as a leading example of Ballard’s profound insight into the contemporary cultural unconscious. It envisions a pandemic of mass delirium that would help elect the recently elected Governor of California to the office of the President: “powerful erotic fantasies of an anal-sadistic character surrounded the image of the Presidential contender.” In the story, the presence of Reagan’s image – not the content of his speeches, which could be changed to convey diametrically opposed messages with no effect – unleashed primal, violent, and perverse sexual urges tied to sadistic aggressive impulses. Reagan both excited these desires and embodied them.

If he is and always was not primarily a political but a libidinal figure, the general amnesia and fuzzy sentimentalism surrounding his legacy is understandable. And maybe more than sheer ignorance explains his current popularity. Reagan is, perhaps, a sublime figure in the technical sense, a totem of a negative sort of pleasure that transmogrifies pain and nausea into awed reverence. Nixon’s brand of reaction had an air of malice, but Reagan applied it with the reassuring, “this will only hurt for a second” tone of a paternalistic physician (pediatrician?). We still want to fuck Ronald Reagan: his centennial has been a necrophiliac orgy. It’s a spectacle we should encounter with dread.

Noam Chomsky, whose prolix prose is of course impossible to condense, offered the following memento on Democracy Now, responding to Obama’s remarks:

NOAM CHOMSKY: This deification of Reagan is extremely interesting and a very—it’s scandalous, but it tells a lot about the country. I mean, when Reagan left office, he was the most unpopular living president, apart from Nixon, even below Carter. If you look at his years in office, he was not particularly popular. He was more or less average. He severely harmed the American economy. When he came into office, the United States was the world’s leading creditor. By the time he left, it was the world’s leading debtor. He was fiscally totally irresponsible—wild spending, no fiscal responsibility. Government actually grew during the Reagan years.

He was also a passionate opponent of the free market. I mean, the way he’s being presented is astonishing. He was the most protectionist president in post-war American history. He essentially virtually doubled protective barriers to try to preserve incompetent U.S. management, which was being driven out by superior Japanese production.

During his years, we had the first major fiscal crises. During the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the New Deal regulations were still in effect, and that prevented financial crises. The financialization of the economy began to take off in the ’70s, but with the deregulation, of course you start getting crises. Reagan left office with the biggest financial crisis since the Depression: the home savings and loan.

I won’t even talk about his international behavior. I mean, it was just abominable. I mean, if we gained our optimism by killing hundreds of thousands of people in Central America and destroying any hope for democracy and freedom and supporting South Africa while it killed about a million-and-a-half people in neighboring countries, and on and on, if that’s the way we get back our optimism, we’re in bad trouble.

Well, what happened after Reagan left office is that there was the beginnings of an effort to carry out a kind of—this Reagan legacy, you know, to try to create from this really quite miserable creature some kind of deity. And amazingly, it succeeded. I mean, Kim Il-sung would have been impressed. The events that took place when Reagan died, you know, the Reagan legacy, this Obama business, you don’t get that in free societies. It would be ridiculed. What you get it is in totalitarian states. And I’m waiting to see what comes next. This morning, North Korea announced that on the birthday of the current god, a halo appeared over his birthplace. That will probably happen tomorrow over Reagan’s birthplace. But when we go in—I mean, this is connected with what we were talking about before. If you want to control a population, keep them passive, keep beating them over the head and let them look somewhere else, one way to do it is to give them a god to worship.

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“My rage is really about the fact that WHEN I WAS TOLD THAT I’D CONTRACTED THIS VIRUS IT DIDN’T TAKE ME LONG TO REALIZE THAT I’D CONTRACTED A DISEASED SOCIETY AS WELL.” – from David Wojnarowicz, “Postcards from America: X-Rays from Hell” (in Close to the Knives, 1991: p. 114).

In 1989, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) withdrew funding from a show (“Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing”) at Artists Space in New York City, because of a controversial accompanying essay by photographer, painter, writer, musician, filmmaker, and East Village luminary David Wojnarowicz. The piece, “Postcards from America: X-Rays from Hell,” was a searing j’accuse directed at among other people, Jesse Helms, Ed Koch, and Cardinal O’Connor for poisoning the discourse of AIDS with fear, bigotry, and callous indifference. Soon after, Reverand Donald Wildmon of the right-wing American Family Association (AFA) excerpted images of David’s work in a sensationalist pamphlet designed to further smear Wojnarowicz and decrease public funding for the arts. Wojnarowicz successfully sued the AFA for violation of the New York State Artists’ Authorship Act. He was awarded damages of one dollar.

From the trial:

Mr. Wojnarowicz, apart from the harm that you believe the AFA pamphlet has cause to your reputation as a fine artist, has it affected you personally?

Yes, it has. I live an isolated life. I rarely see people. I spend a great deal of time at home, whether for reasons of health or work, and I have come to depend very seriously on my work as the communication that I engage in with other people; and I feel this work, this mailing that Wildmon created along with the AFA, seriously distorted that communication and caused me a great deal of anxiety and outrage and, when I saw the pamphlet around May 2nd, I went through a period of very intense depression and outrage at feeling unable to combat this representation of my work or what my work was reduced to and the communication that I perceive and believe is inside the work that I make being so severely distorted. (excerpted from A definitive history of five or six years on the lower east side, Semiotext(e) 2006: p. 225)

Twenty years later, Wojnarowicz’s work has been subject to censorship once again, though this time he is not able to sue his censors (he died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1992). The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, in response to pressure from the religious right, the Republican Party, and the media, has removed the film “Fire in My Belly” from its exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.”

The footage for the film was made in 1987 in Mexico, and exists in several versions. One of them features a visceral montage of sometimes shocking images, backed by the genuinely disturbing music of Diamanda Galas, who recites lines from the Book of Leviticus. (The piece is from her long work Plague Mass, a challenging and often frightening meditation on mortality, sickness, and AIDS, in which she makes her voice resound like the last opera on Earth, performed by a banshee who can play her throat like Anthony Braxton plays saxophone.) It is the most powerful of David’s films that I’ve had the privilege of seeing, next to his death-bed film of the late photographer Peter Hujar, his partner, who also succumbed to AIDS.

Though the Smithsonian is ultimately to blame for the decision, we should be alarmed and repelled by yet another instance of the American Right attacking the arts community — often in flagrantly homophobic language — in order to cynically bolster support among the ignorant for their regressive social agenda. The charge this time has been led by Bill Donahue, shameless bigot and President of the Catholic League. The outrage has focused on a brief, Dalí-echoing segment, in which ants crawl along a crucifix which lies on the ground, which is indeed a provocative image, but one which is part of a larger argument that has been lost in the media noise. The film takes the stigma of pollution and contamination associated with the AIDS crisis and displaces it onto, implicitly, the Catholic Church, which was, and continues to be, complicit in the spread of the disease, especially in the developing world, by way its insistent campaigns of misinformation and homophobia. The film is not anti-Christian, but it is unsparing in its contempt for misguided and dangerous Church positions that even the Pope has become equivocal about. Rather than engage the piece with any sort of argument, Donahue et al. have taken a segment out of context and used it made baseless, slanderous accusations against the artist.

Donahue, moreover, apparently did not see the irony in claiming outrage on behalf of an offended minority while trying to silence an AIDS victim on World AIDS Day. This is unsurprising, given that the man has said things like: “We’re not going to allow gay people to adopt children, that’s against nature, it’s against nature’s god.” Republicans in Congress, who alarmingly have a good deal of control over the budget, have repeated this charlatan’s views on the exhibit, and have threatened the Smithsonian and the NEA with funding cuts.

The NEA’s annual budget is tens of millions of dollars smaller than the daily cost of fighting the war in Afghanistan, that Sisyphean spectacle of pointless and unending violence which seems to “offend” no one in the American political establishment, least of all the Democrats who were elected on an anti-war mandate. It is also about one-tenth of one percent of the sum the Republicans want to give away in tax cuts to the richest people in America over the next ten years. By contrast, the Wojnarowicz piece, and indeed the entire exhibit in question, was funded with exactly zero taxpayer dollars. To put it in even bleaker relief: the artist died so miserably partially because he had no health insurance. To frame this as a question of budgetary priorities, then, is dishonest and perverse in the extreme. This is a cynical game, a game playing on cultural anxieties and homophobia, and one which reveals the House Republicans as the vacuous, reactionary philistines that they are.

If you are in Washington, D.C., and you would like to see the film, the Transformer Gallery is screening it. They are also marching to the National Portrait Gallery to stage a protest tonight, December 2nd, at 5:30pm.

UPDATE: The New Museum on the Bowery in New York City is also screening the entire work in their lobby until late January, as is PPOW (which represents David’s work), and a rogue demonstrator inside the National Portrait Gallery. I also encourage everyone to boycott the NPG until the work is reinstated and a sincere apology is offered.

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