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Ray Carney's Mailbag -- This section of the site contains letters written to Prof. Carney by students and artists, announcements of news, events, and screenings, and miscellaneous observations about life and art by Ray Carney. Letters and notices submitted by readers are in black. Prof. Carney's responses, observations, and recommendations are in blue. Note that Prof. Carney receives many more letters and announcements than he can possibly include on the site. The material on these pages has been selected as being that which will be the most interesting, inspiring, useful, or informative to site readers. Click on the first page (via the links at the top or bottom of the page) to read an explanation of this material, why it is being posted, and how this relatively small selection was made from among the tens of thousands of messages Prof. Carney has received.

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A Christmas Message from Ray Carney

Lately, I’ve been conflicted about maintaining the site and keeping up with the Mailbag postings in particular. I’ve thought of discontinuing it. It's not really the time and trouble it takes. Or the emotional toll from receiving and answering so many emails every week, a small number of which I post on the site. (I jokingly tell friends I sometimes feel I am coming down with "compassion fatigue" when I check my email and find another 100 sitting in my in–box.) No. Those sorts of things are not the problem. I am glad to be able to give in those ways. I am glad to have something like this to give to. What gets me down is a sense that events and feelings are spiraling out of control in the world in ways that I am ultimately unable to affect – ways that these postings, whatever their other value, are irrelevant to. The feeling was brought home to me, acutely, last night, when a friend suggested we go into a major metropolitan shopping Mall, which, given the season, was draped in holiday decorations, bathed with uplifting music, and filled to overflowing with Christmas shoppers.

I’m sure my senses and feelings were heightened because of the unusualness of the experience for me personally. I don't frequent Malls. Ever. At any time of the year. Last night was the first time in more than a decade I'd even set foot in such a place. And, of course, around Christmas it can be a surreal experience even for those who are habitués of such settings. But, whatever the reason, I was deeply moved by the experience.

I know I wasn't supposed to, but I kept thinking about everything going on outside that enormous, artificial stage set, everything that has been going on for years: the trashing of the earth's environment, the corruption of the American political system, including the ways business and special interests have used it systematically to betray the public interest, the squalor and poverty of the undeveloped world (many of whose inhabitants had sewn the clothing or glued together the products people were gawking at or eagerly purchasing), the coming catastrophic shifts in the earth’s climate (first fire then ice, as Robert Frost put it), the calculated horrors of American foreign policy, including the war in Iraq and America’s support of Israel's hateful treatment of the Palestinians. (See Jimmy Carter's courageous Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid for more on this subject. Typically enough, Elie Wiesel declines to speak out about this situation; his principled stands are conveniently limited to historical events.) I studied the faces, gestures, voices, and body language of the people around me, and what I saw was discouraging. I looked for passion, for conviction, for thought, for presence of mind, but all I saw was distraction, unawareness, unconsciousness, inattentiveness, inadvertence.

I know, I know. It's people shopping in a friggin’ Mall, for gosh sake. What in the world did I expect them to be doing or thinking? They can't picket or they’d be thrown out. They can't get on their knees and pray or they’d be asked to leave. They can't organize protest marches or make speeches or the police would be called in. I realized that, but as I studied their faces I became convinced that being at the Mall was not what was stopping them from doing these sorts of things. The people whose eyes I looked into didn’t rally and picket anywhere about anything. They didn’t agitate for social or political change under any circumstances. They didn’t throw themselves on their knees and pray to God to save their souls even on Sundays.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean that they don’t have strong feelings. They do; but they save the expression of them for other parts of their lives. They yell at their boss or their wife; they get irritated when their children spill something on the sofa; they get excited going shopping the day after Thanksgiving; they get lathered up at sporting events; they honk their horns at drivers in front of them when the light changes – but they didn’t get really worked up about the other kind of issues. They are certainly never bothered by them enough to do something that might inconvenience them or cost them money. I guess they feel that if something doesn’t directly affect them, it doesn’t really matter. But the fallacy, of course, is that these things do affect them, and will, in the future, affect them even more than they do right now. But they can’t see it. They just can’t. Somehow their imaginations have failed. As my mother would say, they can’t see past the ends of their noses.

I have to admit I especially studied the faces of the young people. They are our hope, after all. We know that the older generations – my own generation and older – have conspired with the systems that have created the problems we now face.

In desperate need of help, hell-bent for catastrophe. The melting of the polar ice cap, the change in oceanic salinity, the slowing, then cessation of the Atlantic current, the unbelieveable rapidity of a new Ice Age, accompanied by famine then extermination.

We know that the older generation’s passive assent to the way things are has created the way things are. It would be unrealistic to look to them for change. The young are our last, best hope. So I studied the faces of twenty–something boyfriends and girlfriends with their arms wrapped around each other, of young husbands and wives pushing strollers, of the noisy, roving bands of giggling high school girls. I searched for a flicker of awareness of the problems that surrounded them – and that they would inherit from their elders – but I saw nothing. Just nothing. To tell the truth, in their eyes, if possible, I saw even less interest in the problems of the world than I saw in their parents’ eyes.

When I returned home, I looked up a passage I remembered reading in Curtis White's The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves: "In the Grundisse Karl Marx argued that one of the most conspicuous products of capitalism is stupidity. And there is no shortage of stupidity around us at present.... Still Paul Virtilio's idea in Pure War that we're unconscious has more explanatory power.... Unconscious in what sense? North Americans are not speaking to their culture; they're being spoken by it.... It is the unconsciousness of the pure and passive ‘spectator,’ to borrow from the vocabulary of Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle. The spectator sees all but takes responsibility for nothing. Both our political leaders and the leaders who control the major media outlets are equally mouthpieces for accepting ‘the way things are’ – foreclosing on all deviant perspectives, constantly reaffirming the orthodox rubbish we think we already know."

But the faces I had looked at told me that White’s critique didn’t go far enough. It's always convenient to blame someone else – our “leaders,” the “media,” the “system.” But the truth is that the problems were not created by someone else; they were created by us and by people like us. And they are re-created every day of our lives, as long as we continue to allow others to define who we are and what we want. We can’t blame the media or the politicians. It’s like blaming movie producers and television executives for our films and TV shows. We get the movies we patronize. They make the television we agree to watch. Similarly, we get the politicians we vote for. Election after election, Americans vote for politicians who tell them what they want to hear. It’s a fallacy to think that the people in the Mall want to hear the truth. They don’t want to be waked out of their slumber of unreality. They prefer to sleepwalk – even to the point of death. I think of the amazing scene in Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice when, for the best reasons in the world, the father has the doctor give a sedative to his wife because he does not want her screaming about the end of the world to wake her little boy who is upstairs sleeping in his crib. Better that she and he sleep through to the end – and beyond.

Is this what we have come to? (Though there will be no sleeping though our end, of course.) When I stared into those eyes at the Mall, I kept thinking of the artists trying to wake us up, of the shamans and teachers trying to deepen and enrich our souls, of the holy men and women trying to move our hearts to awareness. But I also thought of how few real artists, teachers, and shamans there are in our culture. I thought of how marginalized, outnumbered, and out-gunned the real ones are by the cheap imitations, and of how the quiet, spiritual voices are drowned out by the incessant scream of the mass media for peoples’ attention. I thought of how many aspects of our culture are devoted to persuading people to sit back, forget their troubles, and enjoy themselves, and of how much of our culture is organized to induce states of distraction and unawareness just like the carols, decorations, sale banners, and crowds in the Mall.

What can be done? Can anything be done? Or is it too late?

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Peace on Earth. Good will toward men.

—Ray Carney

For other thoughts about the effect of the culture of consumption on our imaginations, click here.

I sent the above posting to two frequent readers of the site, to get their reactions, warning both of them that they might think what I was sending them was "crazy." Each wrote back:

Okay, so I just finished reading your attachment....

Not as insane as you'd indicated, or quite frankly, insane at all. I spent a lot of time screwing around in these places growing up, and feel the exact same way you do, and have felt this way for a long time. And you're right about the younger generation (read: my generation). We are late capitalism realized. In the flesh. The perfect, unthinking, unending consumers.

The more I understand about the world, the more I realize just how packaged all the culture is, the more I'm perplexed and disgusted and saddened and infuriated by it. The more I learn about how the various reigning systems work, and experience their workings firsthand, the more embittered I get.

Not that there's anything wrong with being bitter. For starters, I think this country would certainly be a better place if people weren't so concerned about keeping the peace and being so friendly. There needs to be more outrage, more bile, more public expressions of disgust. Where are our revolutionaries? How is there not one single politician who can even approximate the obvious truth in any public discourse? And whenever someone snaps, and says what they're actually thinking... 24 hours later they have an army of publicists doing everything they can to attenuate the language, to recant any truth accidentally put out there. I was watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on TV today, complete with some talking heads in between commercials talking about what a wonderful, seminal, important film it was, for x, y, and z reasons. And what bullshit it was... That simply to be a talking head, to supply the meaningless, affectless blurbs to fill ad space is an immediate indication that the entire film has had zero relevance to them. And then the commercials followed, with a smiley-faced yuppie couple watching It's a Wonderful Life on a big-screen HDTV, under a shiny, plastic Christmas tree....

In the end, of course, all these feelings need to be channeled into something positive, something constructive. Even if it will never make it out beyond an increasingly marginal group of people. And I'm trying to do that now... But goddamn, I wish there were more people out there willing to yell and kick and scream about the state of things.

Alex Lipschultz

The second response:

Funny, I went back online again. I just felt like doing it. Then I came across your e-mail and attachment ...

First of all, thank you very much for sharing with me this very personal and deeply felt piece.

I had shut down my computer and I was getting ready for bed already. I was curled up with my girlfriend Yvette's copy of TROPIC of CANCER and her birthday gift to me ANTON CHEKHOV EARLY SHORT STORIES 1883-1885. I am reading one short story a day, or one an evening in this case. The story I read this evening called "IN THE GRAVEYARD" where an unknown group of people where going through a graveyard one evening. They bump into an unnamed actor looking for the grave of a great actor named Mushkin. The group of people led him to the grave after some difficulty finding it. The unnamed actor said Mushkin was now forgotten by the people who loved him, but he was remembered by the people who hated him. And the unnamed actor was one of the people who hated him for the petty reason that Mushkin had "inspired" him to become an actor and it had brought him nothing but pain and misery.

Perhaps I'm forcing the connection, but to relate it to your Christmas greeting, it was true then in 19th Century Russia as it was even earlier in the history of the world, we cop-out a lot. We don't face up to our responsibilities. The responsibilities we must take to make that cliché but desperately needed difference. And worse, like the unnamed actor, we don't face up to the responsibilities of actions we ourselves took upon. We fall back on the convenience of blaming a dead Mushkin, an abstract notion of someone else causing our misfortune.

But yes, I know people do evil unto other people and the world in which they live in. You saw it in the mall, and though I live in that part of the world which is called "underdeveloped", I see it here around me in different forms. I myself have on occasion been part of those evils either by my inaction or sometimes when I forget that all that I have is but a gift and a blessing for service as Yvette reminds me.

To quote a very recent e-mail sent to me by Donal (he was reading NO LOGO by Naomi Klein at the time although I haven't read it, but Yve has a copy), he wrote, "... So much of what surrounds me, the technology in my room, maybe even the clothes I'm start to wonder how much of it exists on the back of exploitation and suffering. We're born participants in a very ugly charade..."

It really is tough. I know, but only a little bit. I've actually had a very sheltered existence most of my life, and it has only been the last few years of my young life that the realm of my ideas as H.Miller puts it, has found a relation with my living. And how frightening and traumatic it has been. But it has also been at the same time inspiring and humbling.

So what am I trying to say, what am I trying to say... You have to keep going, Professor.

Small voices in a room of megaphones, but these voices can still be made and can still be heard ...

As I read your greeting, I felt so much like crying to think of all that is going on in the world that needs to be set right.

What Ms. Ung shared of her experience in her article also means so much to me. I find myself wondering why I bother at times. Why should I bother because very few people seem to care, and even a lot of my friends and family can't find the time to give me a simple "thank you" when I share of myself. But I know, I know, that is my ego talking. Or of course as she wrote, "discouraged by the fact that they don't see direct evidence of how their actions make an impact."

But suddenly I recall the chapter on FACES in Cass on Cass where John compares working on FACES for years and the evil of the Vietnam War that was going on at the time, you wrote that he said, not a direct quote, if they can spend all those years on something negative, then we can spend three years of our life on something positive.

To relate to that, I think a lot of people understand the law of KARMA in its simplified version the wrong way. They don't commit wrong because they are afraid it'll "come around" to them someday. I believe you shouldn't commit wrong because it basically fucks up the very fabric of the universe since we are all connected as I have learned. A negative action causes some or a lot of damage to the tissue that binds us all, stretching us all further away from each other till it finally tears ... responsibilities, responsibilities ...

Subsequently, some kind of positive action or actions, helps keep that tissue strong and healthy and alive, keeping us aware and in love with each other.

Did that make sense? The rantings and ravings of an early morning right at the equator ...

So again I return to what you've always said to me: keep going, it matters, it matters, my God it matters. Please ...

JP Carprio

A note from Ray Carney:

This page was only up for a few hours when Donal Foreman submitted the following response:

Subject: Re: because here and now matters no matter what lies ahead

Dear Ray,

I just read your Christmas message. It gave me a weird kind of happiness or hope----or something, some sort of dynamic energy----because I have similar experiences every week, and to see that reflected in someone else, even in despair, is kind of strengthening. So thanks.

Anyway, I just wanted to give you this thing I wrote recently. It's getting published in a magazine in Cork soon, along with other people's responses to it. I think it relates to what you said, and though it's about film culture in particular, what I learned from writing it seems to relate to a lot more than that.

Merry Christmas,



First, thank you for the kind response. It's wonderful to meet someone who understands. As I told someone else who wrote me about my Christmas statement, suggesting I might need to take a rest of a break to get rid of my sad feelings: "Why run away from from our sadness? What's so wrong with tragedy? Why do we feel we have to deny or suppress our feelings? A lot of life is sad or strange. I know that and accept that. That's truth too." I honor that part of me--and of life--too. I refuse to play the happy face game that everyone else seems to be devoted to. That's what I want from art too: truth, even if it is sad at times, or difficult or painful or clumsy. I don't want happy, happy, happy. If I wanted that, I'd watch television. Or go to a Hollywood movie. We know that's not true. That's fakery. That a lie about what we are.

And second, thank you for what you sent me. Your essay "The State of the Art." It's wonderful. I am posting it for visitors to the site to read. (Click here to go read Donal's essay.)

Merry Christmas to you, Donal. YOU give me hope.


Subject: On Xmas message

Hola Ray!

I'm out of school and about to diasppear for vacation, but read your message and thought to send you something. Well, I sent you some e-mails a few weeks ago. Don't remember how long ago now, but life is pretty ugly sometimes. Just from my own short life, seeing how people destroy themselves and life and such...there's tragedies all the time. Just a few hours ago my dad and I argued over my future. He said "stop being an artist". It was almost a bad cliché scene from a typical Hollywood flick. Of course there was no emotional catharsis in this movie and tearful hugs and all the rest...Oh man, I still love my dad though. We don't really hold things against each other that bad. Anyways...

You have to imagine (here comes the metaphors) what if everyone on earth went blind. Would the sun stop shining? What if the electrons saw the neglect and indifference of the human soul, so stopped spinning? I know this things are 'inanimate', and this metahpor is a bit trite (Nature is a favorite thing of mine, so I often think in natural terms. Not always, but...) but it's that spiritual drive to fulfill your purpose, your destiny that matters. So what if everyone drags themselves down? You got to stay in your own lane and speed on ahead when everyone shuts their engines down. I don't mean live on an island, but, well, you know what I mean.

My brains are a little dead from finals. This is the best I could write in my mental state.

(name withheld)



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© Text Copyright 2006 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.