Einstein and Nils Bohr once had an argument about two things. First it was an argument about Quantum Mechanics. Secondly it was an argument about everything else.
Irritated by the idea that the Quantum Model of reality meant either there was no God or that God was more of a drunk or a klutz than not, Einstein said: God does not play dice with the universe.
To which Bohr said: Stop telling God what to do.
We were remined of that after watching the latest “hit” from Netflix.
Russian Doll is the latest in a long line of stories in which the linear narrative is put into a non-linear blender, the plot is set to repeat, and the protagonist (later, protagonists) dies, and snap back to the same moment at the same place and repeats more or less the same trajectory albeit with a series of nesting doll iterations that change, slightly, the details but not the inevitable relaunch.
Most if not all of the reviews offer a regurgitation of the story line, and that the show bares a slight similarity to a famous film, that no one can really say what it’s about, that it might be about doing stand up comedy, or addiction, or any number of other things. They also make mention of the show’s references to complex ideas touching on therapeutic systems, famous authors, music, and archetypal images.
They also highlight the enigmatic nature of the show and offer it as an example of its claim to sophistication.
The show is the triumph of what we provisionally call, internet culture.
It used to be that knowledge was broken, more or less, into three broad spheres.
The first was knowing what was of value within the limited confines of your immediate world.
The second was knowing a skill.
The third was having knowledge of the wider world, and knowing things that required the ability to travel, read and speak a foreign language (or several), sift large amounts of data and refine it into information, the ability to build complex arguments including ones that you did not necessarily agree with, the ability to retain vast amounts of information about a wide variety of subjects, and recognition of the hierarchy of ideas and expertise.
It used to be that to gain some mastery of that third sphere you either had to be wealthy or be wealthy enough to gain entrance to a restricted, discriminating (in all senses of the word) institution of elites, for elites, and dedicated to the preservation of a system that kept knowledge and corresponding avenues of power, strictly controlled.
Of course things have changed.
Over the last few decades and in a sense since the Enlightenment and before that since the scientific revolutions of the 17th century, knowledge has become diffuse and democratic.
If you have access to the internet, and a computer you can in turn gain access to almost all of the data that previously could only be accessed by people who were able to gain entrance to elite institutions.
Now, more or less anyone, more or less anywhere (notwithstanding serious issues of censorship) can read more or less anything.
And while there is much that is good about the democratization of knowledge, there is also a Trojan horse – a defect that, given the financial stakes involved, no one really wants to discuss and even if discussed leads quickly to dreary paint by numbers arguments about elitism and the virtues of what used to be called the proletariat but now, in an effort to sell the product, is called the 99%.
The result of this is a circus of claims to intellectual authority.
For example there’s the Lobster King, Jordan Peterson, who believes a properly constructed argument about the historical trajectory of Marxism can be shaved down to: Marx leads to Mao and Stalin, therefore, Marx is bad and people are similar to lobsters.
And, he gets taken seriously rather than being a serious example of the degradation of knowledge, reasoning, and logic.
He’s not alone.
Trump of course appeals to the lowest common denominator and seems a success because half of his constituency is comprised of people whose idea of an off-shore account is a locked door at a bowling alley, with a hand lettered sign tapped to it that says: Private, and because the other half of his supporters are reactionary neo-fascists and a-political cynics committed to their own power regardless of how it’s achieved.
Which is not to deflect blame from the establishment liberals who wail and gnash their teeth over Trump while simultaneously giving Wall Street an ever-expanding jaw shattering blow job. That they refuse to acknowledge their symbiosis with the monster speaks both to their mendacity, as much as it does to their stupidity. After all it’s not just that saying, we’re capitalists get used to it, marks you as a moral pathogen, it also establishes that you are so fundamentally stupid that even if your stupidity was laid out in front of you, point by dreary moldy point, you would be too stupid to understand it.
To put it another way, as a very smart thug once said – as above, so below.
Reality is an odd contraption. It is both simple and complex.
Here’s the otherwise banal John Updike, the master of polished literary turgidity, displaying a rare moment of intellectual grace in regards to a film, Six Seconds in Dallas, that asked uncomfortable questions not only about uncomfortable issues but raises still more uncomfortable questions about how the seemingly simple is in fact the endlessly complicated and, visa versa:
“We wonder whether a genuine mystery is being concealed here or whether any similar scrutiny of a minute section of time and space would yield similar strangeness – gaps, in consciousness, warps and bubbles in the surface of circumstances. Perhaps, as with the elements of matter, investigation passes a threshold of common sense and enters a sub-atomic realm where laws are mocked, where persons have the life-span of beta particles and the transparency of neutrinos, and where a rough kind of averaging out must substitute for the absolute truth. The truth about those six seconds in Dallas is especially elusive; the search for it seems to demonstrate how perilously empiricism verges on magic.”
The ruefully amusing issue here (or at least one of many) is that Updike figures in Russian Doll.
He is mentioned as a kind of touchstone for both intellectual sophistication and the murky swamp of the otherwise placid notion that the suburbs are a kind of Avalon to the capitalist dream; arcadia with a guest room, a den, and space for the kids.
The problem though is that Russian Doll has nothing to say about Updike or anything to say about whether or not the things about which Updike spoke, matter or don’t – are authentic or not.
And that is the central defect of the show.
Vulture.com has a series of articles about the show and in one offers a throw away point that at times the show seems to be nothing more than a series of cold intellectual exercises that lead nowhere of any significance.
That is an interesting line of possible excavation and one wishes they had bothered to follow it. Instead like the show itself, the review mentions it almost in passing, then moves on to other things.
It is no accident that it does so because internet culture is all-pervasive.
It’s as if the entire social system is being run by Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi – no introspection for you! Come back, two years!
Russian Doll is itself a Russian Doll of mirrors (sic) that reflect nothing – except the illusion of complexity and sophistication.
William Burroughs, Bukowski, the hipster’s spirit animal of implied but insubstantial superiority, Jodorowsky, and others, all are spaffed up the visual wall, and transformed into fast food for the soul; a bag of soggy fries for the mind.
Characters mention them in passing but with feigned intensity and people more or less blink and grunt acknowledgement, and taken altogether it’s as if the show is leaving claw marks on the wall of a cave rather than actually engaging in any sort of discussion.
Consider the main protagonist presented as a kind of pantomime of the hardboiled postmodern Auster-esque New York Trilogy archetype – wisecracking, cynical but romantic, wounded but determined, flawed but authentic, not taking bs from anyone, and who keeps repeating the No Exit time loop of “death” “life” “death” “life.”
Except of course the character is fundamentally one dimensional. Confronted by the most extraordinary manifestation of God playing dice with the universe, she barely registers either hysteria, or Nietzsche’s liberating triumphalism in the face of eternal return.
She does cry a few times, she does express something that simulates enlightenment, and she coughs up wisecracks and expressions of hedonism and sprinkled in-between high culture references decorated as if they were artifacts of spiritual wisdom, she stumbles from Chaplain-esque Tramp to diminutive Sam Spade but in each case, without ever experiencing either the Zen of being the eternal Fool, or the existential torment of being the Hero.
For the audience that considers Russian Doll mysterious and rewarding, sophisticated but accessible (a floor wax and a dessert topping) none of this will matter even if it’s acknowledged.
What goes missing of course is an understanding and appreciation of complexity.
Complexity is built into the idea of a hierarchy and the internet, and the internet culture, as a reflection of were capitalists get used to it – the blunt end of the corporate dictatorship – needs to sell the idea that there is no hierarchy to knowledge – everyone is equally smart which is a way of saying everyone is equally stupid.
To acknowledge that some people are smart and most people are idiots, to acknowledge that genius is rare, is to not only antagonize the dreary dialectical foot soldiers of the left, but ironically, it is also antagonistic to the run of the mill marketing weasels of capitalism whose existence is built on selling the illusion that everyone has a fair chance at success.
Snobs are terrified that everyone is different. Elitists are terrified that everyone is the same.
The snob responds by piling up trinkets of success in an effort to prove they are different. Elitists knowing that genius and talent as an expression of the unique, thus rare, goes about the business of trying to stay away from the mob.
Or as Johnathan Swift had it:
“When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.”
Woven in and through this of course one finds snobs and elites who go the extra yard and want to start sending people off to re-education camps – Gulags and Lagers.
Such goons and thugs come in all shapes, sizes and accents – Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, Trump, Le Pen, the clown on the stool next to you at your corner pub who talks as if his lack of a seat in Parliament is down to a vast criminal conspiracy, designed specifically to keep him from giving full expression to his genius, and so on.
But short of those catastrophes what remains is that in a corporate dictatorship, using the methods of a vast monopoly, authentic discussion, and authentic works of art as a critique of both itself and the wider world, are cannibalized by charlatans who stick a hand up the genuine artifacts’ ass and wave it around like a sock puppet as the audience claps.
Russian Doll, inside a Russian Doll, inside a Russian Doll, inside the corporate thuderdome, where the hucksters, sell Christmas cards in June.