Sunday, August 26, 2012



Recently there has been an attempt to justify the constant conflict in our society by trying to find a way to make agonism -- well -- less agonizing.  Agonists feel life is a struggle in the best of times.  I don’t know what they would make of adult oppositional defiance “disorder.”  They say conflict is inevitable, esp. in a pluralistic society, but they don’t like it when they don’t prevail.  

Manicheism is part of a complex of Middle Eastern religious systems that valued that dualism, that binary division of everything from gender to rank to tribe.   Manicheism taught the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness.  No gray area.  An adolescent’s way of seeing right versus wrong.  It appears to be the default position of every conservatism.  Each tribe finds its own members good and other tribes bad.  This is the motor of "Oz" plots, with Simon Adebisi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje -- in reality a London-born lawyer) staking out the African (Yoruba) version of the metaphor.

But that’s not all there is to the warring dualities, for many of these characters are at war with themselves, their good sides against their bad sides.  This is the level that draws us in and lets us identify with them.  The plots are simply the cloud chamber tracings of their particular moves back and forth between being good people with problems and bad people who murder.  The problem for the scriptwriter is how to manage that.  Sometimes the plots get pretty preposterous or are unrealistically compressed in order to keep everything moving.  In this series the actors are good enough to make you forgive the unlikelihoods.  In the best of circumstances the overarching social questions get a good airing.  It is true, as Sister Pete says, that a country without laws is doomed.  We see it in the newspapers.

But there’s more to it than that.  Agonistic societies with rules must have lawyers and judges and rule books.  Beyond that, they assume God is a big Super Judge, the source of authority.  We swear to God.  The permission to kill people is assumed to come from God.  When the injustices and destruction continue in spite of the law, God is emptied and the people no longer believe in the deflated balloon that lies on the courtroom floor.  The Maenads, the women crazed with vengeance, take over the world.

But contemporary science is giving us a new vision: the interrelated mystery of many small parts that can blindside us with epiphany.  A simplistic idea of evolution resulting from conflict, leaving one creature a winner and the other one sprawled is wrong, dead wrong.  Evolution is a question of many tiny accumulating code changes on every level from quark to cosmos.  It’s not a matter of who wins the argument.  

The whole concept of existence is transformed.  Humans are not children of a big King God, but rather something like music borrowed from the Milky Way.  We don’t die, we simply shift to a new key and the music goes on.  Somewhere in our bones and entrails, hollow as they may seem, are traces of other music played earlier whether or not ears had evolved, because everything is waves and particles.  The planet earth itself resonates; the seas are full of whale songs.  

What was missing for me in this very successful and popular series called “Oz” that spoke to so many people about their own situation in life -- about the mystery of what will happen next, about human hatred and mortality -- was this religious shift, which is very much underway in the culture.  Even more than that I was missing the insights into human being and meaning that will loosen the hold of institutions so that they can grow, too.  The reason this thinking is missing is that these ideas are too new.  Just in the last decade have some understood.

The scenes of counseling and “sessions”  of groups were fine as far as they went, but there really wasn’t time on the show for the careful sorting-through for individuals that could reveal the delicate organic machinery of change.  Someone would say,  “I’ve had time to think a lot” and then claim a new view of life, but it was never all that convincing.  Many plot threads were simply stories accumulated in a journalistic way, so that the viewer had to connect the dots.  At the end one whole episode filled the interstices with stories.  Actually, the effect of many of the stories was to confuse the dots, to disrupt the game.  On purpose.  This is a series about questions rather than answers.  Fontana loves to fool us.

In an interview Tom Fontana says that after 9/11 he was presented with a choice between being afraid or choosing to believe in our country and God.  Very Manichean.  Very Manhattan.  Very Agonistic.  He says he “chose” the latter alternative.  In other words, he stayed in his bubble because he had decided to do that.  This fits with the current counseling language of “making choices.”  The counselor tells you to make a choice and gives you plenty of clues about what the system wants you to do, which is the “good” choice.

What if the choice is “emergent,” the result of a whole new set of options?  And by that I don’t mean moving from New York City  (not that I object to Fontana’s quite marvelous world there), to an equally high-octane world in LA.  I mean, what if the economy collapses?  (It did.)  What if suddenly there is plenty of oil?  (There is.)  What if there is a major election?  (It’s coming.) 

Showing nude men deep kissing is old news now.  Fontana did it to himself.  “Fuck” is a word that means nothing anymore.  Some say that a creative person has about ten good years before they begin to repeat themselves.  There was an up-tick when Michael White played a character evidently inspired by Jar Jar Binks, that obnoxious cartoon character in “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace”.  By the end of “Oz” it was clear that Dorothy should look around for her ruby red slippers.  Everyone had slipped too far into the old groove.

I’m unclear about the relationship between Tom Fontana and David Simon, who both seem to claim “Homicide.”  They seem to have taken the genre in quite different directions.  Fontana went with the stripped Greek wrestlers and Simon went with a more open world containing more possibilities.  “The Wire” was deliberately designed to change focus and the ground of the argument every three years.  But for what “Oz” is, a ground-breaker, a career-maker, it deserves praise and admiration.  I haven’t seen any political impact so far.  But now that the shock has worn off, we can think about it.

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

I think your analysis of agonism is pretty spot-on. I've been thinking a lot about binary antagonism because I've spent a lot of time this year in alternative socio-political space, such as Radical Faerie Sanctuary space, where in fact agonism is viewed as aberrant and even pathological. People work hard to build community and consensus, and agonism/conflict is viewed as neither innate nor inevitable. Sure, it happens—but it's nurture, not nature. Once you realize that you are free to make up your own mind, suddenly you're also free to change your assumptions about the nature of reality, which has the effect of changing the nature of reality. What we perceive tends to be what we create. So all of these massively testosterone-driven male-bonding cop shows are both reflection of the cultural zeitgeist, and its creators. I remember a period on TV and in the movies in the 90s when all the bad guys, of whatever type, wore mirror-shades, pony-tails and armored trenchcoats. Even agonism has its clichés. I think it's fruitful to mock and turn upside down those clichés, both to observe them and to deconstruct them and to steal their power away. That's a very Faerie tactic.