Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Brand desire

Those seeking some respite from the standard chat show fare might enjoy Russell Brand being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman. From bland to Brand, from branded to candid, it's a rare vacation from the usual vacuousness of celebrity culture.

Beyond Brand's apparent notoriety, publicised and purloined by the same media that 'made' him, it's refreshing to find someone so personally immersed in brand vacuity yet so animatedly willing to dissect his own 'anointed' place within it.

It's also a measure of the BBC's own dumb-down journey that this kind of interview can only get a late-night Newsnight slot.

The interview with Paxman does, of course, provide Brand with an alternative kind of 'anti-fame' platform from which to promote his book and coming docu-film on the cult of celebrity - a new and developing 'non-brand Brand', perhaps. But underlying the comedian's actual motives and hyper-gesticulations lies a series of apparently sincere truths about our obsession with products and the ways in which fame, or the 'promise' of which, spins its cruel illusions.

Brand is, consciously or unwittingly, speaking 'street Chomsky' in his analysis of the omnipresent, media-driven message to consume, 'aspire' and deify celebs; a constant mind-directing narrative intended to keep us all stupefied, diverted, pacified and enslaved to market conformity.

Reminiscent of the same multi-faceted message explored in Starsuckers, Brand rails against the empty gift box of fame:
"We're presented with the attractive spectacle of fame to distract us from the mundanity of our everyday lives."

"It has absolutely no value of itself. It's a spectacle, an illusion, a distraction..."
The consequences of consumer culture and its failure to bring any meaningful form of contentment are huge, Brand believes. No one cares about grand narratives, like religion or communism, anymore, no one cares about big ideas. Instead:
"we've been fed this grey sludge of celebrity, glittered-up and packaged and lacquered and sent directly into our brains by the media that both you [Paxman] and I work for in different degrees."
His conclusion:
"Celebrity in and of itself is utterly, utterly vacuous."
For Brand, fame involves another painful compromise: the loss of privacy and anonymity; a sacrifice that has no worthwhile function, as opposed to being, or wishing to be, say, a great singer, dancer or basket weaver for its own sake.

Beyond that more meaningful quest for satisfaction from one's art, the famous are bound, he believes, to experience massive disappointment and "dissatisfaction".

Yet, beyond our gazing endorsement of mundane market rewards lies a cultural hinterland which, as in Brand's elucidations, can still be moderately educational and entertaining, a pleasing release from the stultifying tedium of celebrity angst.

Brand sees his own still-captive seduction, his own enduring abandonment, to the lie of fame and consumption, yet seeks something more elusive and enlightening from his inner explorations:
"I thing we should try to examine the things that we're using to make us happy, this pursuit of celebrity, of wealth, of status, this consuming of products, this ignorance towards ecological and economical matters, and aspire towards something more beautiful, something more truthful and honest..."
The politics of desire

Brand's articulations on the ultimate consequences of unbridled desire suggests a core truth about human experience and the kind of false expectations we harbour about our personal lives.

But the same might also be said of the mistaken forms of desire we invest in politicians and their political projects.

Recall, for example, the apparently burning desire in 1997 for an end to Tory rule in Britain, the deliverance of which brought us Blair, more neoliberalism, the Iraq debacle and over a million people dead - Brand's parody of the same media "narrative" over whether to choose 'this or that Miliband' suggests a continuation of that false politics of desire.

Then there was Obama, with larges swathes of the liberal world craving a messiah President; the re-making, no less, of brand America. With no appreciable improvements for the poor and an intensification of warmongering in Afghanistan/Pakistan, the gathering disappointment over Obama's performance might be measured in inverse proportion to the hyped media desire invested in his election.

Think, likewise, of the desire for an end to apartheid in South Africa, a 'liberation' which quickly gave way to resigned disappointment as a new elite plundered the wealth and ignored the plight of those still eking a living in the townships. The political arrangement may be better. But is it the desired result of so much struggle?

The paradox of social and political 'arrival' seems, so often, to be new oppression and deep psychological scarring.

Consider Israel. Having fled the murderous ravages of the Nazis, how content are present-day Jews living in a stolen land? The vital illusion peddled of a 'promised land' has not only resulted in the mass removal and subjugation of another people, it has, in the Zionist desire to occupy more land and punish more Palestinians, instilled greater fear, hatred and unhappiness in its own citizens.

Taking that question to its next potential stage, would the realisation of a so-desired Palestinian state provide the anticipated freedoms and progressive liberation craved by the Palestinian people?

The answer is, probably, no. A new Ramallah elite, already forming, sponsored by the corporate West, might well emerge and suffocate that higher social goal, just as happened in South Africa. Even if a Palestinian state is won, the poor will, likely, long remain impoverished in Balata and other refugee camps, just like the black townships.

Yet, the likelihood of new injustice does not invalidate or preclude the actual struggle against occupation and existing injustice. We don't just lie down and accept apartheid oppression because the potential deliverance from it may be underwhelming. Rather, the act of resistance should involve that same educational check on the potentialities of false desire and selfish attainment.

Comprehending the pitfalls of desire is not just about recognising our own illusionary ambitions, indulgences and disappointments. It's also about understanding the possible realities and let-downs of the all-promising political package.

That's where we might more usefully come to craft a more just deliverance based on political compassion rather than the technical constructions of states, borders and constitutions.

All the world, it seems, is now in thrall to the culture of celebrity and the packaging of dreams, most of which, the market ensures, will never be realised. Consumption is that never-ending cycle, the relentless search for an imagined contentment.

The urge to endorse the 'life-improving' capabilities of the political elite is as ideologically-driven as the encouragement to consume any other never-satisfying product. Yet, we remain conditioned to the same consumerist desire, the brand of political and economic hope they call 'liberal capitalist democracy'.

While brands Obama, Cameron/Clegg and Miliband invoke grand dreams of a 'free world', 'deliverance through cuts' and a 'new politics' for a 'new generation', Brand Russell offers in his small burst of whimsical humility, at least, some more realisable insight into the fabricated nature of desire, false consumer promises and the higher potential rewards to be had by mediating one's own delusional cravings.

Which all makes for a happier human outlook and a more moral-minded politics.


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