Human & Machine• ART

Rick Moody on Art and Political Action

The acclaimed novelist, short story writer, essayist, and socially and politically conscious individual speaks on the impact of social media and its effects on elections.
Katherine Sloan

Who do you think, in terms of popular artists, would benefit from being more political, and how can they use technology to do so? 

In popular culture, there is a view that writing can be “escapist,” that it might on occasion have a specific function, which is to allow the reader to be swallowed into a story that distracts from reality (let’s say the political reality for the moment). This belief restricts story to a sort of narcotic effect, rather than allowing it to have mimetic value, in which commentary on the political realities of the day can be a part of the work. Never mind whether a “narcotic effect” is worthy, or a just use of one’s literary powers, the idea that the work can somehow avoid having a political effect, strikes me as somehow odd.

If you look, for example, at speculative fiction (sci-fi, as we used to call it), an understanding that these stories are often allegories or political parables (as in Star Trek), is now widespread. The so-called genre fictions are legion in their attempts to distract rather than inform, but they are not always effective at it. The political leaks into them. That’s a use of genre that I can powerfully support (Ursula Le Guin or Octavia Butler would be good examples of this political imagination in a genre context).

The same is true of the popular media generally. I think for those thinking carefully about cinema and its history, it is now widely understood that our present period of Hollywood filmmaking is among the very least interesting, the least thoughtful intervals in the history of the form. 

The dominance of a Marvel/DC franchise-oriented, product-placement-oriented era of filmmaking is doubtless, for example, anathema to anyone who wants to see adulthood dealt with in film, or the political upheavals of our time accurately rendered. And yet the Wonder Woman film, or Black Panther, indicate that at least in terms of empowerment and access to the means of production, these films can be caused to do more than simply provide air-conditioning for underserved communities.

Maybe my answer here is an allegory in itself. While empowerment and enfranchisement are worthy goals (more black horror writers, more black crime-fiction writers, more Asian American writers of every sort, more indigenous or First Nations writers, more writers from Africa, more Rohingya writers, more writers from Northern Ireland, more writers from Kashmir, more writers from Cypress, more Venezuelan writers, more Inuit writers, etc.), they are especially worthy goals in an environment in which these newly empowered artists come to understand themselves to possess a bullhorn that will allow them to militate for political change.

Clearly the popular and widespread approach to technology is to adapt quickly to the new platforms as they emerge, and to try to be the artist who capitalizes here first. This means making music for a WhatsApp world or a 4chan world, where quickly linking or streaming is the norm for how music is being consumed by a younger audience. It means giving up on monetizing art some or all of the time (perhaps, as the joke goes, in favor of dry-goods manufacture, like tour T-shirts). It also means understanding how these new media become part of the art-making process (collaborating on YouTube, for example, to achieve a more global music).

But another way to use technology for politically oriented art is to critique and to refuse it. The Ned Ludd [the legendary founder of the Luddites] approach to refusing is often ridiculed and held to be impossible, especially by apologists for the dominance of Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon, et al., but I think hatred of technology and resistance to technology are noble and worthy endeavors, and keep the large capitalist purveyors of tech on their toes. There should be more resistance. Making arguments against tech is to speak more exactly to what is human in the world now. 

Apple, as we all know, is the most successful corporation in modern human history. It is the Dutch East India Company of its time, which means that it is, as Wikipedia says of the Dutch East India Company, a “company-state,” a transnational entity, one that has crossed over the boundary of the corporation into some pseudo nation-state or city-state, or religious entity, that cannot be controlled by any nation or any army. The same is true of Google. 

To speak to these facts, to speak against tech, is to be political, perforce. When these corporations (I’m thinking of Tesla now) become bent on lofting their brand capitalism into space, all I can think about is how badly we’re going to fuck up the rest of the solar system, too, and how many workers will be oppressed on the way to doing so.

How do you think that the need for a distraction is not just an excuse to become more literary but an impetus to participate in upcoming elections?

These days I both do not want to be distracted at all, because of the monstrous situation in which we find ourselves, and I feel sullied by contact with the regime I dislike so violently. I mean this literally. I feel soiled by reading the tweets of the president of the United States. I cannot read them, and don’t read them, therefore, and I feel that protecting myself from that use of language (very much in the shrillness subgenre, by the way) is valid. It’s to love the suppleness of more sophisticated thinking about life and politics. I believe I can still effectively oppose the regime without having to be inundated by its tidal wave of hate.

Sometimes refusing to participate is a radical act. It worked for Christianity in the early Church! And sometimes really great writing, among other things, is enough, simply by its greatness, to distract from the heinous tweets, the tweets dragging down the reputation of a nation, despoiling it. The humanism of art, the lasting and powerful capacity to observe and represent in art, that is perhaps other than being immersed in the grim particulars, but also supportive of resistance.

Do you think this will bring about progressive change? 

There need to be many kinds of political involvement, and many skilled parties. I am satisfied with where I am now, though I know there are others who are going to staff the phones and make the fundraising calls, and I admire their contributions greatly. Often, I wish I were that person, the person who still had enough uncommitted hours to be manning the phones or going out and knocking on a lot of doors, or, perhaps, getting involved in spiritual kinds of engagement that are meant to oppose things as they are. 

Social networks are oriented toward instantaneity. That’s great. But in some very deep precinct of my own constitution, I am resistant to instantaneity. It’s only valuable up to a point. I don’t tweet (I believe I have tweeted five or six times during the whole time of Twitter), and I find Facebook less and less relevant. Oddly, I really, really love Instagram. In a way, image saturation is really compelling to me. I think of Instagram as a totally allegorical space. These are not true statements about life, these photos of kids and sunsets and good meals. They are little allegorical bulletins about life. The more creatively Instagram is used, the better I like it. Though that may in part be due to teaching photo students at the Yale School of Art for seven years. They all have really excellent Instagram presences.

How important is a respected public figure’s support of a political candidate?

I think the political opinions of celebrities (and this includes writers, probably) are much less important than we think. No one thinks that James Woods is going to shift anyone to the right because of his kooky nonsymmetrical smile and former charm or his brutish arguments. Kanye West’s reflexive defense of the Trump regime is probably not going to cause that many people to vote for Trump. Susan Sarandon certainly didn’t make the Sanders campaign look better. They are certainly entitled to their political passions, but they should be understood to be mere voices among others.