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The Invariant Memory of Empire

The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire, Getty Villa – 

When, in a crowded casino, the endangered hero of a lousy movie grabs his girl and jumps into a car that is on display to zoom out through shattering windows into the neon-lit boulevards of Las Vegas, it is all about generating a moment of surprise. When Teardrop, in the film Winter’s Bone by Debra Granik, grabs his niece Ree by the hair and tells her “I told you to shut up once with my mouth” we are caught off guard, and in that shocked opening we engage anew with the world. When Shakespeare writes “And pity, like a naked new-born babe…” he varies the um-pah, iambic rhythm in the last three syllables to surprise us, and then focuses our opened minds on that vivid closing image. And surprise – subtle, awakening shocks – are what Velazquez is after when he drops the sharp diagonal of the table edge between the curving shapes that compose the Water Seller of Seville. With art (even in its degraded forms), it is all about the surprise that frees us from conceptual filters, opening us to the seamless emergence of the present in all its vivid complexity. These thoughts came to me at the Getty Villa looking up into the vacant eyes of the Tzitzimitl, which is an artifact designed to do precisely the opposite.

A monument to the depravity of human beings in an authoritarian mode, the Tzitzimitl leans forward in the main gallery, hands reaching out, grinning with a lecherous avidity. Small holes perforate the top of the Tzitzimitl’s head. Here, the priests would pour bowls of human blood, and the blood would seep down through the open ribs to drip off the pod-like liver that hangs below the rib cage like the clapper of a bell. A demonic figure dredged up from Aztec Mexico, this life-sized terracotta statue must have been terrifying in the shadowy dark of the temple pyramids, shrouded in smoke while those dying under the sacrificial knife wailed and groaned. The Tzitzimitl is an instrument design to deliver psychic collapse.

We mill around the Tzitzimitl’s legs, me and the other visitors to the Getty Villa, as if the dark and repellent energies that surround this grim artifact have entirely dissipated. But something in me is alarmed, as if I am crossing a line that should not be crossed. A feeling of dread rises up as I watch the tourists scan the explanatory plaque, and then shuffle off under those vacant but watchful eyes. No surprise here: you are defined totally by the reductive narrative of the social hierarchy, the Tzitzimitl whispers, and you must submit and obey its imperatives, even unto your untimely death.

Through the use of this kind of terror, the Aztec priesthood maintained a regime of conquest and domination for the two centuries preceding the arrival of Hernan Cortes in 1519. The curators of the show, “The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire,” take pains to connect the power structure and practices of the Aztecs with those of Imperial Rome, and I would not argue the point. The human urge toward conquest and domination observes no historical, regional or ethnic boundaries. I’d be willing, in fact, to extend the category to include the coercive American empire advocated by Dick Cheney and the virulent right wing of American politics. This inclusion might seem outlandish…but only if you happen to be an American. While thwarted, at least temporarily, in their overt political aims, the right’s communications infrastructure – the infamous, Fox-centered Right Wing Noise Machine – continues to seep polluted thought into the cultural mind-stream like a malignant tumor. Rather than work cooperatively to confront the very real and quite alarming environmental and social challenges unfettered Capitalism has created, we are forced to battle disinformation at every turn.

I went to the Getty Villa thinking about the issue that’s come up in recent posts about how the brain is shaped by experience, and how concerted efforts must be made to to alter such “hard wiring.” I’m curious about the collective correlates of this individual effort, which connect, for me, with the very pressing issue of sustainability – our ability as a species to outrun our own destructive capacities. No doubt there were Aztecs, perhaps a great many of them, who recognized the inherent absurdity (not to mention the barbarity) of human sacrifice, but who found themselves powerless to alter a deeply rooted pattern of ritual buttressed by the tangible benefits of militarism and empire. In contemporary America we are not in the habit of cutting beating hearts from living victims…but we consume way too much of everything, and it is arguably a more destructive habit in the long run. And authoritarian elements in American cultural life are being emboldened by how terrified huge segments of the population are by the threat of even modest changes.

Recent research into the fine-grain neuronal structure of the brain underscores the roles “invariant memories” and pattern recognition play in human intelligence. To form predictions about what will happen next, the brain reaches back through the vast, neuronal archive and builds on what has happened before. When predictive statements about how the world operates reach a certain level of complexity, we call them “stories.” Stories are comforting, but when we forget that they are also artificial, stories quickly lead us astray. Reality is inherently non-conceptual. If the stories we tell ourselves are not continually readjusted, the invariant memories driving them inevitably deliver imbalance.

As an institution, the Republican party seems to understand all this. Representing the interests of the top one per cent of the population they have become adept at manipulating story elements buried in the national consciousness, and then at framing every issue in narratives that resist the influence of reality. As we approach the 2010 midterms, they seem determined to wring short term advantage from every situation, regardless of how increasing imbalance leads inevitably to a crash. Course corrections can be traumatic, involving as they do the sudden, surprising immersion in direct experience unmediated by protective conceptual frames.

For anyone familiar with tragic drama, “direct experience unmediated by protective conceptual frames” begins to sound like a description of catharsis, the shattering moment in which the tragic hero suddenly sees how radically off target his (or her) conceptual picture of things has been. The hero of tragic drama is forced down into the experience of the present moment. There she confronts the somatic voltage of unprocessed traumas directly, such that they no longer distort her vision. The shock of this moment is conveyed to the audience watching the tragedy of Antigone or Lear unfold on stage. The experience is cognitive, but also deeply affective, rooted in the collective body as well as in the mind. And it is no accident that tragic drama flourished most powerfully in Athens and Elizabethan England, arguably the two most transformative and dynamic societies in history.

As individuals, one action we can take to escape confining narrative and conceptual frames is to go to the body. How we do this in a collective way is a big subject, clearly. But it is hardly an abstract issue today. After my encounter with the Tzitzimitl, I found the opulence of the Getty Villa oppressive, its weighty panels of multicolored marble buttressing the impression of an obdurate social hierarchy. The last thirty years have seen a remarkable transfer of wealth up the socio-economic ladder, and today income inequality is greater than it was in the 1920s. Many of my friends in the arts community are suffering today, their livelihoods in question. Our ability to inquire about root causes of our situation begins to ramp down as we are forced to focus on issues closer to home. In this way economic trauma confers on authoritarian forces a short term advantage, but only en route towards the chaos of collapse.

Stepping back to look at the longer term I’m compelled to quote from the opening of Knowledge and Politics, by the remarkable Brazilian social theorist Roberto Unger:

“In its ideas about itself and about society, as in all its other endeavors, the mind goes from mastery to enslavement. By an irresistible movement, which imitates the attraction death exercises over life, thought again and again uses the instruments of its own freedom to bind itself in chains. But whenever the mind breaks its chains, the liberty it wins is greater than the one it had lost, and the splendor of its triumph surpasses the wretchedness of its earlier subjection. Even its defeats strengthen it. Thus, everything in the history of thought happens as if it were meant to remind us that, though death lasts forever, it is always the same, whereas life, which is fleeting, is always something higher than it was before.”

Unger, who until recently served as a minister in the Lula government in Brazil, certainly deserves several posts of his own. For now let us hope his former student, Barak Obama, learned enough to break some of the more destructive patterns clouding the American mind.


  1. Harvey Perr says:

    It is a brilliant piece. You are so informed, so politically centered, that everything you say seems, to me, not only reasoned but
    accurate. But it sometimes seems to me that you could take any subject and take off from there, bringing it back to what you want to talk about. In other words, should I go to the Getty and see this show? Should I bypass everything that is on the walls of such an oppressive environment? It’s a good question. But our attempts to change the culture which surrounds us and keeps us down is an authentic battlefield. I appreciate your dedicated willingness to fight some of these wars for us.

  2. Nancy Cantwell says:

    The Tzitzimitl is my kind of demon: Direct, succinct, effective and non-conceptual. “No surprise here: you are defined totally by the reductive narrative of the social hierarchy,…” His message is unmediated and the actuality of his authority is inherent his use. The Republicans only wish they had such a clear message to deliver. Instead they resort to “stories” that in the middle (and I believe that the middle is where we are) of this recession people can shut their doors, turn on the TV and cling on to their predigested, corporate endorsed, gluttony. I mean that fat Wal-Mart guy is so titillated by what he would do for a Klondike bar its embarrassing to watch, and yet you just know that there’s a website out there where they are sharing the lurid details, over and over. I digress. What I fear most is “they seem determined to wring short term advantage from every situation regardless of how increasing imbalance leads at some point to a crash.” And what I crave most is for Mr. Obama to have a cathartic moment of leadership that will shatter the complacent into creative action untainted by fairy tales of the American dream.

  3. Dov Rudnick says:

    Guy, you have a gift for bringing to mind images of terror hidden from view for five centures. The awesomely horrible Tzitzimitl must have been marvelously effective at keeping those scared shitless peons from mounting insurrections against the power structure. To draw a connection to our situation and specifically, a feeling of impotence, individual and collective, in the face of ecological catastrophe would require that we elucidate precisely what scares the living shit out of us and keeps us in line. So many moments of insecurity which consumer culture relentlessly beats us with over the course of thirty-five thousand advertising images a day adds up to a thoroughly horrifying demon.

    What interests me is your own solution. “…to escape confining narratives and conceptual frames…go to the body” It is a rare moment of hearty optimism. No faint hope that Obama will grow some balls or have a sudden revelation. But a concrete suggestion of what we can and must do. This is the “big subject” you acknowledge. I would be interested to see you explore it further.

  4. Nick Faust says:

    You exquisitely evoke the way you perceive this work of art, and how looking at a work can initiate a a disarming/liberating process of new thought. This is not a piece that only “examine(s) the strictures of advanced social domination;” it also describes the power art holds over our imaginations and the way complacent acceptance may in fact break down in its presence. From the Tzitzimitl and human sacrifice to our Country’s black hearted social, political landscape, from there to the Getty, itself, and finally to artists that you know who are indeed struggling: you chart a connection with another world to illuminate the one we all now share. (John Steppling clearly does not understand what you’re writing about.) A beautiful, thoughtful, poetic piece. Thank-you. Nick Faust.

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