Generative Anthropology Summer Conference 2011, May 19-21

The Day of the Locust

In Nathanael West’s 1939 novel The Day of the Locust, he poses the serious question, whether modern society is capable of deferring the violence that it provokes. Describing a mob scene at a Hollywood movie premiere , he writes,

Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.

The ensuing riot scene in West’s novel, as well as the protagonist’s painting-in-progress titled “The Burning of Los Angeles” suggest that West is not optimistic about the fate of America, exemplified here by Hollywood. The anthropological insight of the passage above is first of all that their violence is provoked specifically by representation (as opposed to simply things, facts, or any particular state of events), and especially the mass media. He also points out that ” Nothing can ever be violent enough” to satisfy the desires of the mob. The expectations raised by consumer society are so grandiose that no satisfaction, within its own terms, is possible. West is an acute psychologist of group dynamics, and various scenes in his novel demonstrate a fine understanding of desire as mimetic, that is, competitive.

West’s novel provides us with one of the best models for understanding Occupy Wall Street and other leftist movements. First of all, their (admittedly inchoate) desires are created by the mass media, which is dedicated to finding “scandals” everywhere. Second, that no reform can possibly satisfy their demands. This becomes virtually conscious with OWS, whose members admit that their purpose is primarily “occupation” or protest itself, rather than any particular reform. Third, that political correctness is essentially a competition for the moral high ground. As we saw in Zuccotti Park, PC has a tendency to fragment, because any particular position is subject to a more radical critique, and one’s PC “credentials” are likewise vulnerable to attack. It’s not an overstatement to say that national and international politics have become largely a battle for the moral high ground. How and why this is so deserves further consideration.

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