Creative Destruction of 1980s (Counter) Culture: Appetite for Destruction and The Garbage Pail Kids

The Regan era was one of continued Cold War, “Just Say No,” and Coke II and Pepsi challenges. It was the era that brought together Guns N’ Roses and Garbage Pail Kids.

Guns N’ Roses’ debut album Appetite for Destruction (1987) marked the resurgence of classic hard rock after years of highly electronic New Wave pop. The album was welcomed by fans who longed for authentic in-your-face rawness. The album featured a number of tracks representing what today we would call “destructive” lifestyles and activities, from heroin addiction (“Mr. Brownstone”) to sadist culture (“Welcome to the Jungle”). The songs were vehicles for listeners to feel a part of a counter culture that had been seemingly anesthetized by the Reagan years. But there was more than just the music that helped GNR stir controversy and increase record sales.

After Axel Rose was told it would be distasteful to use the exploding spaceship Challenger as cover art, he turned to Robert Williams’ painting Appetite for Destruction (what the album was supposed to be titled before this is a mystery). Williams’ painting depicts a robot, dressed as Robert Crumb, founder of Zap Comix, the iconic underground series of the 1960s that critiqued mainstream culture. In William's painting, Crumb has with a bear trap head and towers over the woman he presumably raped. In the background, a strange creature--perhaps Rat Fink-like Hell's Angel with long metal blades for teeth-- floats towards the robot. While some suggested this character is poised to avenge the woman, the creature’s purpose is unclear. Knowing the graphic image would stir controversy, Williams recommended that GNR choose a different image, but the band decided to use Appetite for Destruction, arguing the work was “a symbolic social statement, with the robot representing the industrial system that's raping and polluting our environment.”[1] Not everyone agreed with GNR’s interpretation. Many stores refused to stock the album, leading GNR producers to create a second album cover that was less controversial. However, the original cover was ultimately relegated to inside the cover, which didn’t stop feminist groups from protesting the band, arguing the image glorified rape.

Williams, known for pop surrealism, “lowbrow art,” and his affiliation with Southern California car culture (the so-called Kustom Kulture and Rat Fink aesthetic of the 50s and 60s), claimed the painting had no deeper meaning and was “intended to have no more meaning than a picture on a cocktail napkin, and if they appear to some people to be more than tightly rendered cartoons, well, those people are right.”[2] So then, what is the purpose of portraying a woman being raped by a robot?

While Williams has been criticized for objectifying women—showing them naked on hot dogs, sandwiches, and tacos—he has never offered any insights into why, except that he loves a woman’s ass and a woman’s ass is more beautiful than the stars or any mountain range[3]. And while it is perhaps easy to understand the conflation of sex and food—important human drives—what about the rape of a woman by a robot? Is it more than a commentary on Crumb's sexual appetite? Is the fact she is selling miniature robots a commentary on capitalism?

It is also worth noting Williams was affiliated with underground comix scene. Also a part of underground comix was Art Spiegelman who, along with several others working for Topps Company, created the Garbage Pail Kids, trading cards parodying the expensive and infamous Cabbage Patch Kids and which were released in 1985.

As pointed out in 30 Years of Garbage: The Garbage Pail Kids Story, the Cold War was not yet over, Reagan was president, people were going crazy for Cabbage Patch Kids (there seemed to be a deep craving for orphans in the 80s, e. g., Different Strokes, Punky Brewster, Rags to Riches, E.T., Alf, etc.), and the creators of GPK wanted to challenge the cultural milieu of the era. (In this sense, one might argue GPK should be taken more seriously than Williams' "Low brow" art that is arguably sexist.) While some Garbage Pail Kids are a direct parody of the Cabbage Patch Kids, others are political in nature. For example, “Adam Bomb” shows a kid with a mushroom cloud exploding out of his head. Others include “Snooty Sam,” “Rappin Reagan,” and “Alice Island.” And each character has a twin--allowing GPK creators to get a two for one on each character.  In the Garbage Pail World, there isn't only Rappin' Reagan but also his twin “Ray Gun.”

But, like Guns N’ Roses, who became a commercial success by selling more than 30 million albums, the Garbage Pail Kids became iconic in their own right, though co-creators Mark Newgarden and Jay Lynch question this success. Newgarden explains the cards were made for mass production and for the kids, not collectors and obsessed fans. Jay Lynch compares the Garbage Pail Kids to graven images. He said, “The image of the Garbage Pail Kids stopped becoming satire and started becoming holy icons that just exist in and of themselves.”[4] He criticized Mad Magazine creators for losing sight of their satire and commercializing their content as well. Lynch said creators often made one issue with multiple covers in hopes collectors would buy multiple copies of the same issue. 

But isn't this what the 80s were all about: buying two and throwing one away?

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[1] Goldstein, Patrick. 1987. ""Geffen's Guns N' Roses Fires a Volley at Pmrc." The Los Angeles Times. Aug. 16. Accessed Oct. 27, 2017. http://articles.latimes.com/1987-08-16/entertainment/ca-1533_1_artwork .

[2] Deriso, Nick. 2017. The History of Guns N' Roses Controversy-Courting 'Appetite for Destruction' Cover. July 27. Accessed Oct. 27, 2017. http://ultimateclassicrock.com/guns-n-roses-appetite-for-destruction-cover-controversy/.

[3] Acid Head: The Conceptual Realism of Robert Williams. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mHUMbgZhc0s

[4] 30 Years of Garbage: The Garbage Kids Story (2017).

Plastic: The Indestructible Destroyer

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Plastic doesn’t biodegrade but breaks down into micro plastics that swirl together into a toxic soup in the ocean’s gyres. During this journey, larger plastic pieces are mistaken as food by birds, whales, and turtles, and, as the plastic continues to break down, smaller animals such as fish consume it. Researchers have documented at least 200 species that have ingested plastic,[1] creating another avenue for dangerous chemicals like Bisphenol A to enter the food chain.  If the adage “you are what you eat” is true, then Norman Mailer is correct that “our bodies, our skeletons, will be replaced with plastic.” In his 1983 interview with Robert Begiebing, Mailer highlighted the morbid life of plastic, calling it the excrement of oil and a “malign force…that is the social equivalent of cancer.” He said plastic “infiltrates everything. It’s metastasis. It gets into every single pore of productive life.”

Since the 1950s, we have manufactured 9.1 billion tons of plastic. Of this figure, 5.5 billion tons remain in the environment[2], with the most impact to the ocean, where 8 million tons of plastic are dumped every year.[3] If plastic manufacturing remains at current rates, then by 2050 “the ocean will contain more plastic, by weight, than fish”.[4]  While recycling is perhaps the most effective way to keep plastic out of the environment, only 9% of manufactured plastic has been recycled.[5] And recycling, like all consumer-related activity, is influenced by market forces. In 2016, oil prices dropped and so did the price of plastic, making it cheaper to manufacturer new plastic bottles than bottles from recycled plastic.[6] With China’s recent import ban on 24 recycled materials such as soda bottles, it is possible many plastics that would normally be recycled will be destined for the garbage heap.[7]

And while plastic’s indestructibleness cause significant environmental destruction, there is also a social cost to plastic. On one level, plastic is too sanitized—an equivalent to political correctness. Mailer explains, “Nobody has ever been nourished by plastic. It’s functional. It’s the spiritual equivalent of political correctness. It’s functional. It serves a purpose, and the cost of serving this purpose is enormous.” On another level, plastic—the excrement of oil—is dirty. As Ira Wells notes in Fighting Words: Polemics and Social Change in Literary Naturalism, “Mailer’s problem with plastic is not that it is too clean but that it’s inherently dirty. Humanity’s relentless drive toward efficiency—to make even our byproducts productive, to make our waste do some kind of work for us—has led to the metastasization of a kind of shitty totalitarianism, a hyperrational world in which everything now comes packaged in a film of excrement.”  

The Genealogy of Creative Destruction

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The notion of creative destruction derives from the Hindu god Shiva, the Cosmic Dancer, who embodies the paradox of the principle of creation-destruction, the continuous balancing of birth and annihilation which is a necessity for the continuity of the Eternal. This necessary coupling of creation and destruction was introduced into German philosophy most likely through Herder (perhaps the first great multi-culturalist in Western thought), and would influence Hegel’s` central concept of dialectic movement (Aufheben) where development requires creation of the new through the perishing of the old. It was Nietzsche who made creative destruction a popular trope of early modernism (through its articulation in Schopenhauer) with the important difference that for Nietzsche the process of creative destruction was not necessarily part of historical development (like Hegel) but a kind of sacrificial event which he related to Dionysian violent creativity which was necessary for humanity’s negative evolution to proceed.

Today, the expression "creative destruction" is mostly associated to the economist Joseph Schumpeter and his 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, where the term “creative destruction” is used to describe the inevitable process of economic change through innovation and resulting changes in labor and markets. As such, creative destruction, as an economic principle, came from Marx, who articulated the same ideas in The Communist Manifesto, the Grundrisse, and Capital.

We are of course in the midst of a monumental shift in the global economy where the Marxist-Nietzschean dialectic of creative destruction is at work though posthhuman technological progress: millions of jobs will be destroyed through the advent of automation which will result in fundamental changes in capitalism itself (some have predicted the end of capitalism or at least a quite different postcapitalism). This creative destruction, which most economists saw/see as the inevitable result of technological innovation, seems to be occurring no matter what rustbelt Americans or Brexit Brits voted for. Shiva’s dance continues. 

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Agnotology and the destruction of knowledge

The events in Charlottesville, Virginia highlight the possible epidemic of the growing cultural production of ignorance. Historians of science Robert N. Proctor and Jimena Canales have proposed that we are now so inundated with false informational venues through digital media that we need a compliment to epistemology which they call agnotology. Epistemology is of course the study of knowledge: the point being that we also need to study and analyze what we do not or are simply prevented from knowing. The putative catalyst for the events in Charlottesville is a familiar one the last few years: the removal of a Confederate monument from a public venue. Putting aside all the dimensions of the rise of White Nationalist and other so-called Alt-right groups and their intersections with the rise of Donald Trump, we must also understand that many of these monuments were erected after the end of Reconstruction in many former Confederate cities in an ideological push by Southern states to rewrite the history of the Civil War. The main point being the comprehensive new narrative that the Civil War was not fought for slavery but for the “noble cause” of freedom, states rights, etc. The results of this ideological propaganda, which was so dramatically captured in D.W. Griffith 1915 film, The Birth of Nation, included the honoring of Confederate heroes with public monuments. This narrative, which is still disseminated today is a great example of cultural ignorance at work. The mention of slavery as the cause of Southern rebellion is anathema to this day in much of the South, and no white Southern politician can expect to be elected but with the endorsement of this ideological explanation for the War between the States. Some have suggested (including Trump himself) that we always need to honor history, but that must always include the mechanism of agnotological critique. The issue is not the destruction of monuments but the destruction of cultural memory. Perhaps a statue of Robert E. Lee surrendering, honorably, to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia could replace the statue in Charlottesville.

 

 

The Destruction of Feeling in a Rhetorically Nuclear Age

In Indefensible Weapons: The Political and Psychological Case Against Nuclearism, Robert Jay Lifton and Richard Falk warn readers of the repercussions of abusing the rhetoric of nuclear war. Such rhetoric causes those exposed to it to be psychologically numb to nuclear war’s severity, which in turn increases the likelihood of resorting to nuclear options. The names “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” conjure images of the Pillsbury Dough Boy and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man rather than the terror they induced when dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today, the way in which politicians spew nuclear rhetoric both terrifies and numbs us. Threats of nuclear war increase the likelihood of it happening, and if the rhetoric is empty, we are told it’s the end of the world as we know it but we feel fine. Language then has gravity and force—has the potential to be a stick-batted stone that cracks skulls and numbs psyches—making it crucial we stay awake, lest we fall asleep with fingers resting heavy on the proverbial button.

But staying awake is difficult when the destructive power of a nuclear weapon is unimaginable. In an attempt to imagine the unimaginable, Lifton and Falk interviewed Hiroshima survivors who explained the nuclear blast was a “sudden and absolute shift from normal existence to this overwhelming immersion in death.”[1] Hiroshima survivors glimpsed the image of extinction[2] and said they didn’t only feel like they were dying but the world was dying—that they were turned into “walking ghosts.”[3] And this is a psychological shift that lasts lifetimes and generations—not to mention the physical effects of radiation.

In other words, the repercussions of the nuclear option are so severe it ought not be considered an option and ought not be worth discussion.

 

[1] P. 39

[2] p. 63-64

[3] P. 40 

From the Destruction of Truth to the Care of the Real

One of the great ironies of today’s post-truth age is that it functions through the grotesque appropriation of the postmodern/poststructuralist questioning of reality: e.g., global warming is a “mere construction.” The main apparatus through which false truths are disseminated and what fuels their success is the idea that the “truth” is being conspiratorially kept from the general public. It is therefore up to the “unbiased” to report the real truth. What a strange world we are living in when what was originally the main function of cultural critique—to debunk, expose, demystify, and deconstruct given political, economic, and cultural truths as so many mythologies—is now in the hands of right-wing demagogues.

In such a ludicrous, contemporary situation we need to reassess the role of critique as has been argued by Bruno Latour: “The critic is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles. The critic is not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naïve believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather. The critic is not the one who alternates haphazardly between anti-fetishism and positivism like the drunk iconoclast drawn by Goya, but the one for whom, if something is constructed, then it means it is fragile and thus in great need of care and caution.”[1] What is needed, in this age of parallel realities and incongruity of truth, is not the destruction of myths, social constructions (what was called the hermeneutics of suspicion), etc., but the creation of assemblages, gatherings, locations of systematic workings, and, most importantly, the critic needs to participate and facilitate the care and stewardship of the real, which is always reducible to the human, the humane, and after all debates are debunked, the lived real.

 

[1]  “Why Has Criticism Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2 (Winter 2004). pp. 225-248, cited in “Real Fictions: Hal Foster on Alternatives to Alternative Facts,” Art Forum (April 2017), pp.166-175.

 

War (What Is It Good For)

Edwin Starr’s 1970 hit “War” has become an anti-war mantra, remade in the ‘80s by both Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and in 2016 by the rock band Black Stone Cherry. Asserting that war is good for “absolutely nothing” because “it means destruction of innocent lives” and “it’s an enemy to all mankind,” in 2001, after September 11, the song wound up on a suggested no-play memorandum from Clear Channel Communications (now iHeartMedia) for its questionable lyrics. But the song poses one of the most difficult questions—one that humankind has sought to answer since before the Common Era. Seeing war as a necessary evil of the human condition, the Ancient Greeks were regularly engaged in warfare both abroad and at home. The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus posited, “War is the father and king of all: some he has made gods, and some men; some slaves and some free.” India’s Bhagavad Gita supplies us with appropriately difficult explanations for the difficult questions of war: what is a just war? What is victory worth if—even in the name of wealth or truth or life—it destroys what we love?  As our methods of war change, these questions remain.

 

The Destruction of the Possible

At documenta 14 in Athens, Greece, contemporary theorist Franco Berardi discussed the possibility of a future in light of our contemporary human situation where destruction is both easier (given our technological means), and justifiable (given our post-capitalist ethics of convenience) . His lecture, “The Destruction of Europe,” begins with positing the issue of “the possibility of being able to do something.” “What is possible is what is not impossible,” Barardi explains. Thus, to understand what is possible it is necessary to define what is impossible. There are mathematical impossibilities, logical and natural impossibilities, “as far as we know.” But is the future possible? Barardi explains that the future is only possible if its possibilities are “inscribed” in the present. “The concept of possible is referring to a plurality of developments which is not infinite. In the texture of the present many possibilities are inscribed,” but not an infinite number of possibilities. What is possible is what is endowed with power and potency. We might add: What happens to the possibilities of a/the future when we are mired in a constant mode of 24/7 destruction. While lingering in the false consciousness of technofetishism and Touch-Screen Seduction Syndrome (TSSS) so much is being destroyed, both material and otherwise; both tangible and intangible: sleep, political agency, true deviancy and dissent (not commodified Fifty Shades of Grey pseudo-subversion), quiet, true uniqueness (not grounded on Instagram/Snapchat Delusional Autoimmune Disease (ISDAD)), animality, mourning, secrets, tradition, thinking, the physical, the real, the impossible.

http://www.documenta14.de/en/calendar/7084/the-destruction-of-europe

 

We Are Here (Pale Blue Dot)

We seem compelled to project our own nature onto Nature. Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work worthy of the interposition of a deity.
— Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan’s genius and humility throughout Cosmos: A Personal Voyage teaches us that the very nature of creation is destruction. From the stellar nurseries where stars are born from dense, collapsing molecular clouds of dust and gas, to the black holes that violently mark stars’ deaths with gravitational forces so strong that no matter or radiation can escape, destruction necessitates the life cycles of the stars. Our own births are also violent, and in death our bodies’ putrefaction is the result of a destructive force so vile to us that we are wont to burn it, box it up, and bury it. Yet, this destruction releases the energy needed to feed the creation of new life. Perhaps humanity’s tendency to place itself at the top of the food chain prevents us from accepting and appreciating this natural order, and perhaps our tendency “to project our own nature onto Nature” permits us to justify our own propensity for violence toward one another and our planet. Let Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot humbly remind us that we are fragile and so is this world that we continuously create and destroy.