Gary’s Inferno

There is only one thing you need to know about American democracy: it does not exist. Using data collected on 1,779 policy issues between 1981 and 2002 – well before Citizens United v. FEC made corruption first amendment protected speech – a 2014 study by two professors of political science at Princeton concluded that ‘the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy’. This finding has significant downstream consequences on all aspects of American life, not least because it is largely unacknowledged, even as its effects, to varying degrees of injuriousness and fatality, are felt by 99% of the population.

The sovereignty of the ‘average American’ is outbid by economic elites as a matter of course, not excluding those supposedly divisive issues (e.g., abortion, gun control, single-payer healthcare) on which there is in fact bipartisan consensus in the electorate, but that does not mean he has become depoliticized as a result. On the contrary, he is more politically engaged than ever before – only his political activities consist in impotently watching cable news, posting about it on social media, arguing with family and friends during the holidays, decking out his lawn and bookshelf with totemic merch and PayPaling donations to whatever politician or cause has most recently shoved its cup into his diminished span of attention. Yes, he sometimes goes to rallies, protests, city council meetings, or even the ballot box, but these activities, whatever he may believe, have become ends in themselves. ‘Politics is downstream from culture’, one of the more astute ghouls recently uncorked in America liked to say, and it is true that the country’s myriad cultural pathologies give its politics their particularly rancid flavour. But the real takeaway from the Princeton study is that, in the daily experience of the average American, politics is culture, culture is politics, and – with one class of exceptions – never the twain shall meet.

Best known for his tenure as the sharp-tongued, hard-to-impress art critic at the Village Voice during the last gasp of the counterculture, Gary Indiana’s insight into this state of affairs is that insofar as the US has become a ‘televised democracy’, it may, like any other aesthetic phenomenon, be reviewed. Now 72, Indiana – born Gary Hoisington in the ‘factory world’ of Derry, New Hampshire in 1950 – has enjoyed an accelerating renaissance since the 2015 publication of I Can Give You Anything But Love. The utterly unsentimental ‘anti-memoir’ touches on his time in Berkeley in the late 60s, the LA punk scene of the 70s, and the downtown art world of the late 80s hollowed out by financialization and decimated by AIDS and the ‘depraved indifference’ of the Reagan and Bush administrations. Semiotext(e) and Seven Stories Press reprints of his collected Voice columns (1985-1988), his early novels Horse Crazy (1989) and Gone Tomorrow (1993), as well as his true crime trilogy Resentment (1997), Three Month Fever (1999) and Depraved Indifference (2002), have followed and been greeted with increasing interest. American readers born in the 80s, in particular, have been drawn not just to his nuclear-grade pithiness, his brazenly queer and bohemian narrative persona and his marriage of the techniques of American New Journalism and French avant-garde fiction, but also to the refreshing absence, rare among members of his generation, of nostalgia and apologetics in his accounts of the political events that have formed the pre-history of their lives.

Fire Season, an eclectic new selection of thirty-nine essays from 1984 to 2021, spans my own, give or take a few months on either end. It makes a compelling case that the window on American democracy closed sometime before I became a teenager: between Bill Clinton’s surprising second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary on 18 February 1992 and the opening of the assisted suicide trial of Dr. Jack Kevorkian on 20 April 1994. In that period, Indiana filed five pieces for the Voice – ‘Northern Exposures’, ‘Disneyland Burns’, ‘Town of the Living Dead’, ‘LA Plays Itself’ and ‘Tough Love and Carbon Monoxide in Detroit’ – that deserve to be regarded as classics of cultural reportage and travel writing. When paired with the more recent art, film and book reviews collected in Fire Season, they connect, as Christian Lorentzen writes in his introduction, ‘the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in ways readers and critics are only beginning to apprehend’.  

In ‘Northern Exposures’, Indiana returns to towns of the Granite State where he grew up to sit in reconverted porn movie houses and rooms that look like furniture showcases and Anglophile prep school auditoria alongside the ‘blue rinse jobs with ropes of synthetic pearls’, ‘Alan Alda types’ or else the ‘dewlapped, earnest preppies’ who have shown up to hear the mercenary, delusional or deranged pitches of half-a-dozen Presidential hopefuls (five Democratic, one Republican). Throughout Fire Season, Indiana shows himself to be landscapist worthy of Bosch and a portraitist worthy of Francis Bacon: he paints with a rich palette of displeasures whose pigments range from the scatological to the refined. What makes the candidates and the people who will vote for them symbiotic is not only that they are grotesque, hideous, odious, scabrous, tacky – to use some of Indiana’s favourite epithets – nor simply – with the exception of Pat ‘Caliban’ Buchanan, who is ‘tediously, exactly’ the frightening bigot and sexual hysteric he appears to be – that they are fake. It is that, like pink urinal cakes in a football stadium bathroom, their half-hearted attempts at concealment have only made everything smell worse. Critics are often praised for their visual abilities and Indiana’s eye for the revealing detail is second to none, but the moral sense is in the nostrils, and New Hampshire reeks of something that has ‘crawled up in you and died’.

New Hampshire’s vices are those of the nation: self-pity (they ‘regard themselves as the only true victims of history’), buck-passing (they ‘admit nothing’ and ‘blame everybody’) and provincialism (they refuse ‘to learn from the larger world’). ‘Of course people are “hurting”’, Indiana writes, giving the campaign cliché the scare quotes it deserves – ‘you usually do hurt after shooting yourself in the foot’. But to shoot oneself in the foot is still a form of agency. If only someone would inject the readership of the Union Leader with a journalistic cocktail of rabies vaccine and truth serum, the logic goes, the residents of this ‘backwards but perhaps not entirely hopeless state’ might start to acknowledge the ‘bad choices’ they have made, replace the ‘bad leaders’ they have put into power and actually fix problems that do not fail to repeat themselves, no matter how bitterly they are complained about.

The degree of civic optimism this presupposes, however miniscule, is no longer in evidence when Indiana flies to Paris a few months later to visit the Euro Disney resort in Marne-la-Vallée. An ‘obvious expression of cultural imperialism’, he writes in ‘Disneyland Burning’, Euro Disney is – no less than New Hampshire – a microcosm of the nation that made it, and not just in the literal sense that you can find Carnegie Deli and Big Bob’s Country Western Saloon there, or even in the sense that Mickey, Minnie et al are ‘genuine American archetypes’. A merger of state and corporation policed by a private security force backed up by gendarmes and staffed by ruthlessly exploited labourers, the ‘superficially varied’ architectural styles of the theme park’s six ‘lands’ ‘articulate…a mode in which any escape from cliché has become impossible’ and ‘presume a universe in which human beings no longer have any minds at all’. Indiana estimates that it would take two hours to make a complete tour of the park, but the average visit requires an outlay of three vacation days because you will spend most of your hard-earned leisure time waiting in line for rides and restaurants while being bombarded with advertisements telling you and hundreds of others how great the experience you’re not having is. Like the off-brand version in Branson, Missouri he will later describe in his essay ‘Town of the Living Dead’, what Euro Disney offers visitors is the slow suicide of this ‘alienated duration’, mort à credit. (Later, making mental notes for a piece on the artist Barbara Kruger, he will say, apropos of Walmart: ‘You can get anything you want at Walmart. The fact that you want it means you are already dead.’) Indiana is not the first to compare Disney’s franchises to concentration camps, but what makes them red-white-and-blue is that you have to pay to get in.

On this description, American culture is something more sinister than merely the means by which political power obfuscates its workings; it is the soft adjunct of a killing machine that reaches its telos in the carbon monoxide pumped through a rubber hose and into the mask held over your face by kindly Dr. Kevorkian. Just as Disney promises the ‘time of your life’ only to deliver dead time, Kevorkian’s ‘Kmart kind of suicide for a democratic era’ promises a dignified death, only to ‘surrender the last remaining mystery to faceless consumerism’. These days, the importance of aesthetic concerns is routinely downgraded in favour of more obviously political ones, but in a country where, as he writes in the Kruger essay, ‘democracy = capitalism = demolition of utopia’, matters of taste and tastelessness are far from irrelevant to the question: how should we live?

If it is to be objected that taking Disney and Kevorkian as the alpha and omega of US culture is to cherry pick from the bottom of the barrel, Indiana does not let its putatively higher precincts off the hook either. The American literary world will later be excoriated for its culture of ‘careerism’ and ‘fatuous self-promotion’ in his introduction to the French transgressive novelist Pierre Guyotat’s memoir Coma. Behind the ‘costume of authenticity’ worn by the first-person narrators of today’s ‘bourgeois literary writing’ – whether memoir, food writing or autofiction à l’Américain – ‘lies the mercantile understanding that a manufactured self is another dead object of consumption…a “self” that constructs and sells itself by selecting promotional items from a grotesque menu of prefabricated parts’. To write such a book is to indulge in the provincialism of personal identity; to read one is to be given yet another anesthetizing hit of ‘cultural morphine’. 

Meanwhile, some thirty miles north of the Disney mother ship in Anaheim, the only genuinely democratic event that occurs in a society where there is no means of peacefully translating popular will into public policy took place. Following the acquittal in the state trial of four LAPD officers charged with the use of excessive force in the beating of Rodney King, thousands of people staged a massive six-day insurrection (or if we must, ‘riot’) in South Central Los Angeles and Koreatown, which lead to over 60 deaths, 2,000 injuries, 12,000 arrests, and $1 billion of property damage. Covering the federal trial a year later in ‘LA Plays Itself’, Indiana does not fail to note that the father of Laurence Powell – the officer with the ‘put-upon, porcine expression of a slow-witted high school bully’ who broke King’s leg with his baton – ‘usually sports one of three differently coloured Mickey Mouse ties’. Nor does he fail to observe that although every politician, including Bill Clinton, that could get in front of a TV camera between 29 April and 4 May 1992 described the insurrection as a ‘wake-up call’, the underlying juridical and socio-economic conditions – the analogy Indiana reaches for is apartheid – that lead to it hadn’t ‘changed an iota’ since. What had changed? Gun sales. Police budgets. The ‘heavier application of cosmetics to a festering wound’.

‘The model really appears to be the old patronizing thing, corporations coming down, helping out, chipping in a little bit, rather than long-term stimulus’, LA Weekly reporter Ruben Martinez tells Indiana. ‘Given that the economic outlook is still piss-poor, and that that’s what set people so much on edge, how can you think there’s not going to be another riot eventually, whether it’s after the trial or some other occasion?’ Fast forward three decades, pausing the tape in Ferguson, Baltimore: the cover of Fire Season features a painting by Sam McKinniss, one of the artists reviewed in it, of an NYPD squad car that got torched during the uprising that followed the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, while then-Presidential candidate Joe Biden – who helped author the 1994 legislation that would give the US world history’s largest gulag – was in Philadelphia calling the murder a ‘wake-up call’.

‘Do I honestly “believe” in democracy?’ Indiana asks himself in his Obama-era travelogue ‘Romanian Notes’, channel hopping between coverage of Tahrir Square and James Clapper’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee about PRISM, a surveillance program so extensive it would have made Securitate, Ceaușescu’s secret police, turn green with envy. The trap for a critic of such unrelenting negations is cynicism; however close he edges to despair, Indiana does not fall into it. Cynicism, after all, is just the flip side of the coin of ingenuousness, a sign that one has lost the ability to make distinctions. Although Indiana knows that democracy is ‘irrelevant’ to the people who run the US and a ‘joke to the people who own it’, he also knows that when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks into you. For critique – of an artwork, of a society – to be meaningful it must be undertaken, at least implicitly, in the name of a preferred alternative. When his wallet is stolen by a Bucharest taxi driver in a companion essay, ‘Weiner’s Dong, And Other Products of the Perfected Civilization’, Indiana is surprised and indignant to learn how many details of his personal life the customer service representative at Chase is able to access based on ‘publicly accessible information’. Surprise and indignation are emotions you are capable of feeling only if you believe things ought to be otherwise.

Fire Season is a vision of hell, but just as every Inferno must have its gradations of offense, it ought to have a place in it for virtuous pagans. The book’s heroes are, first of all, the reporters: Alisa Solomon of the Village Voice, Ed Leibowitz and Ruben Martinez of LA Weekly, Masha Gessen, Anna Politkovskaya. What earns them deserved praise is, quite simply, that they tell the truth. Truth is a much-abused concept in our time; what Indiana means by it is less our gamified sense of fact-checking than an ethos of candour: to ask questions others will not, yes; to point out inconsistencies and outright lies, yes; but also to refrain from omitting ‘complicating facts, mitigating causalities’ from one’s account, or to lard it with ‘exaggerations’. It was for her candour about the Second Chechen War that Politkovskaya was shot four times, once in the head, in a contract-style killing whose timing suggests that it doubled as an obscene birthday present for Vladimir Putin, Ramzan Kadyrov, or both. ‘There is no need for the truth anymore’, a Chechen war widow says in a documentary Indiana watches in ‘I Did Not Know Anna Politkovskaya’, a reflection on the art and function of journalism, the profession for which she gave her life. ‘That is why they killed her’. The widow is right in one sense – despite what Politkovskaya uncovered in Grozny two decades ago, Putin and Kadryov are, as I write, savagely burnishing their résumés as war criminals with the blood of Ukrainian civilians. But we also need the truth, and always will, because it is essential to human dignity. Without it, we are already dead.

The book’s other heroes are its artists (Louise Bourgeois, Tracy Emin, Kruger, McKinnis, Andy Warhol), its filmmakers (Robert Bresson, Louis Buñuel, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean-Pierre Melville, Barbet Schroder) and its many writers (Renata Adler, Samuel Beckett, Anya von Bremzen, Jean Echenoz, Guyotat, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Mary McCarthy, Paul Scheerbart, Unica Zürn). What by and large unites this somewhat disparate group is a certain sensibility: a fatalism that does not lead to resignation, a stoicism that does not preclude sympathy, an ironism that is tolerant of human folly, a tragicomic sense of life that is born of unperformed familiarity with grief, psychic extremity or violence. It is a sensibility that Indiana, as a reviewer of their work, shares. As with his reportage and his true crime novels, the idiom of his criticism is equally at home in the gutter as it is in the firmament; it is informed by the conviction that these are the zones of lived and aesthetic experience, however painful they may be to occupy, where something of value can be wrested from a cruel and cretinizing late capitalist social order.

It is noteworthy – but should come as no surprise – how few of the names on the above list were born in the US and how little of the work for which they are best known was done during the years 1984-2021. This sensibility may be diametrically opposed to the one laid out in ‘Northern Exposures’, yet in a way it is also a kind of shooting oneself in the foot. Over and over again, Indiana compares the experience of such art to a symbolic mutilation: Guyotat ‘spoils the flavour of bourgeois literary writing’ and ‘exposes [the class system’s] corruption of feeling’; Bresson ‘ruins one’s taste for mediocrity’, like a cigarette put out on the tongue; Kruger’s work is ‘the ruin of certain smug and reassuring representations, the defacement of delusion’, such as the one about living in a democratic society. The function of good art – and by extension criticism practiced as an art – is to render its audience unfit to serve as an extraction site for the cultural killing machine. Fire season, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is every day now. This is what we’ll need if we’re going to survive.

Read on: Alexander Cockburn, ‘Dispatches’, NLR 76.