Living in Death's Dream Kingdom: The Psychotic Core of Capitalist Ideology
Capitalist ideology isn't false consciousness that can be corrected by reality testing. It's a deliberate self-deception of a delusional order.
We can't understand-and resist-the working of capitalist ideology until we understand the psychological foundations.
September 6, 2003
Living in Death's Dream Kingdom
The Psychotic Core of Capitalist Ideology
By WALTER A. DAVIS
Here are ten quick lessons toward developing a concept of ideology adequate to our historical situation. (1) In contrast to those who would separate ideology (as a product of society) and psychology (as a product of the family), each lesson shows a way in which ideology is psychology and depends on psychological principles for its realization. We can't understand-and resist-the working of capitalist ideology until we understand the psychological foundations. I hasten to add, however, that while the categories I use here are psychoanalytic, one of the main purposes of the essay is to expose the bankruptcy of American psychoanalysis, the end-result of the goal that has shaped its history: to become the social engineer of the adaptation of the ego to the system.
(1) Lesson One. "The occupation of Iraq will be an enormous success because once free of their shackles the Iraqui people will embrace us as their liberators." "Democracy in Iraq will be a model for the spread of democratic governments throughout the Middle East." "Our actions in Iraq will bring a solution to the Palestinian problem." Etc. The true significance of such beliefs is that those who put them forth actually believe them. They are not the cynical, deceptive cover for something else, but true articles of faith. Capitalist ideology isn't false consciousness that can be corrected by reality testing. It's a deliberate self-deception of a delusional order. Capitalist ideology is the fantasy or fantasmatic consciousness that is imposed on history so that everything beyond control will submit to the force of beliefs that cannot be challenged, modified, or reflected upon. Those who create ideology are not master deceivers, they are true believers. Fantasies are essential to ideology because they provide the frame that is imposed upon historical events to deliver us from traumatic realities. As Marx taught, ideology renders history unknowable. What he didn't see is what Freud enables us to add: it does so for psychological reasons. (2)
This understanding of ideology, like the nine that follow, increase and transform our task. There is not some correct, reasonable consciousness behind ideology to which we can appeal in order to get rid of ideological distortions, come to our senses, and change our policies. No such consciousness is possible. The fantasmatic distortions are essential to the maintenance of the capitalist system. Without them it implodes.
(2) Lesson Two. Ground-zero. As many of you know this term was coined in 1945 in Alamogordo, New Mexico, to identify the epicenter where the First Atomic Bomb was detonated. It was then used to locate the same point in Hiroshima and Nagasaki so that we could measure with precision the force of the Bomb and gauge its effects. The appropriation of this term to refer to the site of what was the World Trade Center is thus far from innocent. I hasten to point out what ground-zero has not been allowed to signify: the ability through suffering a trauma to learn painful lessons about our own past and thereby to achieve solidarity with all victims of atrocity and terrorism through the attainment of a new maturity bound to restraint and the duties of world citizenship: the pursuit of justice through international law, through the presentation of carefully gathered evidence to the United Nations and the World Court. As we all know, none of this happened. It could not because of the psychological mechanism that informs the response of capitalist ideology to history. That mechanism is inversion or the reversal of meaning. To illustrate in terms of ground-zero. Hiroshima was the first act of global terrorism. That is its historical truth. But that truth must be again exorcised by inversion. Thus ground-zero is deployed to identify us as the victims of a terrorism we claim is unprecedented and that we demand the world acknowledge as such. The stage is thus set for employing the primitive psychotic defense mechanisms of evacuation and projective identification to cleanse and renew ourselves through the acts of "heroic" aggression we take in Afghanistan, Iraq, and any other country we label a haven of terrorism. Surplus aggression thereby eradicates an "evil" that has been placed totally outside ourselves. The inversion is completed in a way that let's us once again practice our own form of global terrorism while calling it the opposite.
Such are the primary psychological mechanisms whereby ideology responds to traumatic events. Traumatic events reawaken buried historical traumas, things long forgotten or persistently denied. They thereby make possible a non-ideological knowledge of the past. That possibility mandates for ideology the assertion of the only connection it allows between past, present, and future. Ideology takes the past and inverts its meaning so that it can repeat again what it did before. Repetition compulsion informs not just the inability to understand history but the assurance that things will always get worse. History doesn't repeat itself as farce; it repeats itself as expanded aggression.
(3) Lesson Three. Instead of declaring war on Al Qaeda, President Bush declared war on Terrorism. And that glorious battle had to come cloaked in theological terms fitted to the projection of an omnipotent desire which requires global actions to confirm an infantile self-conception. Through a battle of good against evil, all inner disorders are placed outside us. Historical action thereby becomes the reaffirmation of an ahistorical essence. Action must confer an absolute omnipotent status upon us by constituting the next step in a progress toward the end of history. Being unable to learn from history and striving to bring about the end of history --recall here the post cold-war boast of Fukuyama and others-are functions of the same underlying psychotic desire, which shapes both policy studies and military action. The psychotic hatred of reality requires the extinction of otherness. Putting an end to history is the psychotic project par excellance. This understanding of ideology transforms our task. Marx spoke of liberating the historical, rational kernel from the mystical shell of the Hegelian dialectic. For us, at a later stage of that history, a new task beckons: to liberate the psychotic kernel from the fantasmatic shell.
Ideology is grounded in necessities far deeper than economic self-interest or popular beliefs and prejudices. Such beliefs maintain their hold only because they serve a deeper necessity. The understanding of Inversion enables us get at that lower layer. Inversion occurs when we turn something upside down or inside out in order to deny an impossible condition. That condition, I suggest, is the psychotic anxiety that is at the center of American society. Fantasms provide for ideology the frame that makes reality possible because fantasies are acts of magical reasoning that give evacuation and projective identification a way to fashion for itself the omnipotence that is the signpost of psychosis. That psychotic demand is the true reason why Empire is the destiny we now brazenly announce to an incredulous world.
(4) Lesson Four. John Poindexter (of earlier Reagan Iran-Contra fame) was, until recently, the head of TIAP, the Terrorist Information Awareness Program of DARPA (The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) where he set in motion the since cancelled PAM, the Policy Analysis Market, where anyone who wants could bet money on the date for events such as the following: the death of Saddam Hussein, the next major terrorist attack in the U.S., the discovery of the WMD in Iraq, the assassination of Yasser Arafat, etc.. The official rationale: the Defense Department could thereby get "information" providing a reliable index of future events. Sybil the Soothsayer dressed out in computer garb. The Senatorial outcry that nixed the project (temporarily) was nothing to the hue and cry that then went up within the intelligence community at this affront to the technological imperative. Once again short-sighted politicians deprived us of "a way of capturing people's collective wisdom" and binding it to "a tool with a strong history of accurately predicting future events. Also, fantasmatically, a chance opportunity to tap into terrorist's plans since a primary rationale behind the proposal backed, supposedly, by scientific data about insider trading on the stock of American Airlines and United in the days before 9-11-is that terrorists are like us and can't resist the temptation to cash in on their actions. As apologists for Pam indignantly note, similar computer wagering systems correctly picked 35 of the 40 Oscar nominees in the eight biggest categories last year and have shown scientifically that the price of orange juice is an accurate predicter of the weather in Florida! (3) The speciousness of this argument isn't irrelevant; it's the point. For what PAM offers is the satisfaction of the cardinal imperative of capitalist ideology: (1) a fetishization and worship of the market as the privileged space for the projection of fantasmatic fears and desires. In the age of hyperreality and simulation, predicting and producing the future are inseparable. Such is the faith that informs our simultaneous worship of technology and the market.
Freud saw religion as collective neurosis. In PAM technology creates for capitalist ideology a sacred space. For the deepest fantasy fueling this thing --the shared dream of the stock broker and the Department of Homeland Security--is the dream of omniscience, the belief that we can know and control the future before it happens. All we have to do is provide a space to which all psyches will be drawn as to a gigantic magnet, addicted to what market capitalism promises, the simultaneity of wealth, knowledge, and power. There is, indeed, something autoerotic about the whole scheme. The assumption is that capitalism has already conquered. Terrorists are, finally, just like us. They too can't resist the market. From which follows, however, the paranoid suspicion that the fantasy necessarily generates. Suppose terrorists make bets to deliberately put us off their tracks? Well, the Market has long taught us how to stay one step ahead. After all, we rule the world because we play this game better than anyone else. And thus we find in the further reaches of PAM the realization, for our time, of MAD and its dream of perfecting the logic of deterrence. "I.e., if the Russians think we'll send our nukes if they send theirs then they won't and so we can, etc." PAM is not a crackpot scheme, it is necessary madness, a madness that reveals the nature of the system, the kind of thing it must produce to satisfy both libidinal and paranoid imperatives.
Those who know the work of Thomas Pynchon can see why such examples prove that he (not Marx) is our Vergil who provides in Gravity's Rainbow a model for ideological inquiry. Pynchon's basic insight is that the most extreme, bizarre acts and fantasies reveal in the guise of a desperate pseudo-rationality the madness and irrationality that informs the system as a whole. Texts such as PAM are privileged objects of ideological critique because they underlying psychosis moving with obsessional insistence to what will finally be a condition of pure noise, information cancelling itself as it grows skyward in pure worship of itself. As Poindexter's example shows, the great benefit of "Pynchonian" ideological analysis is that it enables us to put an end to the base-superstructure concept of ideology which has so often had the deleterious effect of isolating then deifying hard-headed economic analysis while confining everything else to superstructural insignificance. But as PAM illustrates, the economic and the fantasmatic are inseparable components of a system that is, of necessity, fantastically fantasmatic. That is why Cheney and the others can whisper to one another, in one and the same breath "that it's about the Oil, stupid," and that "capitalism will bring the blessing of progress and freedom to the entire world in the final triumph of good over evil."
(5) Lesson Five. Omnipotent desire begets paranoia. Or, to put it in political terms, global terrorism requires domestic terrorism. That is why the First Patriot Act begets the second and will no doubt beget the third. Why if you smoke pot you support terrorism and if you criticize Bush's policies you give aid and comfort to the "enemy." Etc. Why Roe v. Wade must be dismantled and gay marriage made a primary campaign issue, all the better to control the knee-jerks of docile subjects compelled to defeat those who support the cancer eating away at our moral fabric. The essential drive of ideology is to extinguish everything that poses the threat of otherness, everything that brings anxiety to a mind like Ashcroft's by raising the spectre of citizens who are anything but obedient, respectful-- and afraid. Ideology is inherently fascistic and surveillance is its priest. The inherent goal of ideology is to totalize the operations needed to give it omnipotent control over all possible contingencies. History only makes sense when projected on the inner screen of psychotic anxieties. Ideology doesn't blind us to history. It rejects history before the fact by projecting a future that it insists must come to pass.
(6) Lesson Six. We thus attain the only ideologically adequate definition of capitalism-a definition which dances simultaneously to economic and psychological imperatives. Capitalism is the reduction of all human relations to the profit motive in an expansionism that is necessarily global and must eliminate everything opposed to its logic. Subjects who internalize capitalism thus of necessity desire " to have all good things" in a purely additive synthesis, a logic of accumulation that is infantile since it can tolerate no contradictions or limitations. Annexation is the only operation. But annexation to what? To a psychic economy that takes as its primary task the elimination of everything within the "self" that does not conform to the logic of capitalism. Through the perfection of that operation one attains the only goal that has value: that blissful state of total affirmation of a subject obsessed of necessity with sign-exchange value-with obtaining what Rilke termed "money's genitals," the objects one surrounds oneself with in order to satisfy the narcissistic fixation and conceal the narcissistic void that capitalism necessarily produces. A "self" that has reduced itself to the condition of a thing must perforce obsessively proclaim, through the possession of things, a phantom identity. Which is why capitalism produces as the primary form of social interaction the age of Happy Talk - the compulsive and compulsory reassurance that one is, indeed, the realization of all human values and has the proof: one "feels good about oneself" and is unwilling and eventually unable to feel any other way.
(7) Lesson Seven. Which brings us to the role in ideology of what should have been its primary critic. My effort has been to bring psychoanalytic categories to bear on the analysis of ideology, to reclaim all that is dangerous and radical in Freud's legacy in order to combat what has happened to psychoanalysis in America. For in America psychoanalysis is merely the "identity wing" of the ideological project, the wing that performs perhaps the most important function by creating subjects bound to the social system as the very condition of mental health and ego identity. Playing that role has been the through-line of psychoanalytic ego psychology from Heinz Hartmann's fetishization of adaptation to the current full blooming of that project: the creation, as therapeutic ideal, of "selves" that are so well-adapted to the system that anything troubling or traumatic has but one meaning and serves but one purpose: an occasion to prove that those who have achieved a strong, stable ego-identity always move from and to the reaffirmation of all the ideological beliefs and guarantees-and one's identification with them. Ego psychology is social engineering as ideological justification. And it works because thanks to the trickle down effect of such thinking in popular discourse and in the media we are now bound psychologically as a nation to the cruelest necessity: the internalization en masse of the structures of feeling that wed subjects to the system because those feelings can no longer be questioned or resisted. They must instead be enacted with the rigidity and regularity of a behavioral law of stimulus-response. The main feeling, of course, is that one should never have bad feelings; indeed, that all feelings labeled "negative" must be shunned. Which is why 9-11 was a trauma that could not be responded to traumatically. Instead, the trauma had to be "resolved." Good feelings had to be restored and as quickly as possible. Any response to events that sustains pain is by definition bad. Faced with trauma, ego psychology performs what is for capitalism its function-putting Humpty Dumpty back together again by helping the populace reaffirm the founding emotional belief: that trauma must always be resolved through recovery of those positive feelings without which, we are told, life would be meaningless.
Our task thus entails a deeper, harsher imperative. To free ourselves from capitalist ideology we must free ourselves from all the psychological needs and feelings that have for most of us attained the status of unquestioned emotional necessities. Tragic self-overcoming and not adaptation must become the relationship we live to ourselves if we are to free ourselves from capitalism's monopoly over emotional experience.
(9) Lesson Eight. That monopolization is everywhere, however, and today has taken control over what should be the primary site of resistance. I refer to what has happened in the Arts since 9-11. Not just the cancellation here, in Princeton, and elsewhere of "shows deemed inappropriate at this time" because they ask us to question when the only thing everyone wants is the warm bath of positive feelings. But also the proliferation of works that perform one of the two functions that capitalism assigns to art: (1) mindless entertainment that relieves us of our burdens while programming us to desire more mindless entertainment; and worse, (2) works that falsely resolve the trauma by offering those structures of feeling that are the aesthetic wing of ideology. I refer to the general belief that the role of serious art is to produce a "catharsis" that discharges the burden of painful feelings and restores us to a "humanity" that is essentialistic and a-historical. It cannot learn from history because it has "always already" transcended it. But what it regards as its superior "Humanism" really amounts to no more than the emotional buffers it imposes on events in order to protect and reaffirm the beliefs needed to deny and contain the posibility of serious, tragic responses to events. Art as oppositional discourse thus faces a task that is magnified by the understanding of ideology we've developed. Art must deracinate every "structure of feeling" that weds it to the effort to please audiences and restore their "good feelings." Culture remains oppositional only if it refuses to compromise its negativity. By that standard, I would suggest, the Arts have never been in a worse condition than they are now.
(9) Lesson Nine. On August 6th 2003, as an official "commemoration" of the 58th anniversary of Hiroshima a top secret meeting was held at the U.S. Strategic Command Center in Omaha, Nebraska. Over 150 top U.S. officials and military contractors attended. Vice President Cheney was reportedly there as was Keith Payne, the man most often seen as the prototype for Dr. Strangelove. [It was Payne who in 1980 opined that the U.S. could absorb losses of 20 million in a nuclear war with Russia and win.] Congressional staff members and committee staff members were barred from the meeting. Its primary purpose was to discuss the various candidates for production as tactical high yield, earth penetrating nuclear weapons. Such weapons are thought to have many uses, including (fantastically) the ability to incinerate biological and chemical weapons. (4)
The search is over. We finally know where the WMD are-and why they haunt us as something we must project as "out there somewhere" in Iraqor, as one bright pundit suggested, already smuggled out and hiding somewhere else. (The WMD function as Bush and Company's Lacanian objet a.) For the imagination of nuclear winter there will always be such conferences where, as in the Poindexter example, contradictions come together as in the logic of the dream, a logic where desire cannot be negated and the expression of the deepest unconscious wish-structure is assured. A spectre is haunting Amerika, the spectre of Hiroshima. What we did then must be repeated, if only in fantasy --and (what looks like) diminished form-so as to again exorcise the disavowed memory of Hiroshima from our collective psyche. Nuclear fear swept America after 1945 as our bad conscience, the recognition that what we'd done could be done to us. Fear is the return of the projections, which can only be evacuated again by an even greater projection of the founding act. Thus the hydrogen bomb. Star wars. And for the 21st century and a new historical situation -- the age of Empire or state terrorism and counterterrorism-- the production of new tactical nuclear weapons as both usable and justifiable. At this extreme, historical irony and dark intentionality meet. Our actions in Iraq proliferated the nuclear threat by teaching all nations (North Korea, Iran) that the only way to deter American aggression is by getting the Bomb. What the conference in Omaha enables us to intimate about the future squares with what it took fifty years to establish as the true reasons why Hiroshima and Nagasaki were incinerated so strong was the ideological pull of the official "humanitarian" explanation that we did it "to end the war and save countless lives." We did it, on the contrary, for four motives: (1)to avenge Pearl Harbor (a terrorist attack); (2)to justify the amount of Money spent developing the Bomb (3)to create a laboratory where our scientific, medical, and military personnel could study the affects of the bomb, and (4) to "shock and awe" the Russians with this opening Salvo in the Cold War. Those motives remain at the core of our policy toward the world. Once again history does not repeat itself as farce; it repeats itself as psychotic necessity.
(10) Lesson Ten. There is a deeper, psychological reason why our leaders must find ways to "commemorate" Hiroshima. Psychosis is the attempt to attain certainty through the manic triad-triumph, contempt, and dismissal. Thereby the Other is made the object of an aggression that obliterates all humanistic and ethical restraints. Narcissistic grandosity is thereby unleashed wedded to the ultimate inversion: Thanatos or Death has been eroticized and provides the one and only, supreme and irresistible libidnal pleasure--the pleasure of unleashing a destructiveness that voids all inner tensions, putting an end to all doubts and fears. Fortuitously, the same day as the Omaha conference Studs Terkel interviewed Paul Tibbetts, the man who dropped the first Bomb and who has proudly proclaimed on countless occasions that he's never felt a moments regret. To him is thus reserved what was in Omaha also the last word. Studs Terkel: "One last thing, when you hear people say, 'Let's nukie 'em," "Let's nuke these people," what do you think?" Tibbets: "Oh, I wouldn't hesitate if I had the choice. I'd wipe "em out. You're gonna kill innocent people at the same timeThat's their tough luck for being there." (5)
The eroticization of Death is the through-line of recent American history and the key to understanding the true goal of capitalist ideology-the creation of a historical situation in which all human relations have become relations among things. To know the future mandated by that imperative the best text remains these lines from a poem Robert Lowell wrote in 1967, lines with an even greater resonance today.
Pity the planet, all joy gone
From this sweet volcanic cone
Peace to our children when they fall
In small war on the heels of small
War-until the end of time
To police the earth, a ghost
Orbiting forever lost
In our monotonous sublime (6)
Monotonous because it is the repetition compulsion of those unable to react to history in any other way. Sublime because it evacuates all inner anxiety by creating the only object that can fill such beings with wonder: the scorched earths in which they create the mirror image, the objective correlative of their own inner condition.
And so, to recap, here are ten definitions of ideology that reveal our historical situation.
(1) Ideology isn't false consciousness. It's fantasmatic consciousness-the creation of illusions and self-delusions.
(2) Ideology isn't based on false ideas. It's based on the necessity of employing primitive psychotic defense mechanisms to exorcise traumatic events.
(3) Ideology derives from the psychotic register of the psyche and performs the three operations needed to carry out the inversion that defines psychosis: i.e., projective identification, evacuation, surplus aggression as the means whereby one locates one's inner disorder in an external object so that by attacking and annihilating it one can overcome what one cannot face about oneself.
(4) The inherent logic of ideology is the creation of policies and projects in which the underlying irrationality takes the form of pseudo-rational ideas. Such policies are surreal texts that must be read as pure wish fulfillments straight from the ideological Unconscious, that register at the heart of ideology that knows no no and must therefore project a dream-state in which all contradictions are annulled and all desires fulfilled.
(5) Ideology is driven by an obsessional need to totalize the omnipotent desire that drives it. That effort is informed by the contradiction that defines obsessionalism-the discovery of new uncertainties and thus the repetition of a project that can only rest with "the end of history." Or, to put it in slightly different terms, ideology is necessarily paranoid.
(6) Capitalism is made fool-proof through the ideological fusion of economic and psychological imperatives. The result is a mass subject in thrall to collective fantasms, a subject whose inwardness mirrors the void at the center of the system. The pursuit of narcissistic "identity" and the fetishization of commodities are inseparable, indistinguishable processes
(7) Psychology is the capstone of the ideological process. It's function is social engineering, the production of the worst form of quiet desperation, that of noisy affirmation from docile subjects eternally wedded to the Hosannah that deprives them of any inwardness.
(9) Ideology is the means by which the sources of resistance are already contained, rendered impossible by "structures of feeling" that control how traumatic events are responded to by artist's dedicated to their social function and by a populace who can only respond with pleasure to those things which take away their suffering, and with it the possibility of awareness. Far from incidental, this definition may identify the most important ideological formation, the one that holds the entire structure in place, by determining what we must feel-and what we cannot. Ideology is inherently behaviorist. It's effort is to create stimulus-response mechanisms that bind subjects to it the way Pavlov's dogs salivated to the bell.
(10) Ideology is the assurance that the founding psychosis will thrive, renewed as the blank check on which the entire edifice draws for its sustenance. It is a circle that cannot be broken into, a circle that contains experience and history in the repetition of the same.
In view of such a situation the task of resistance is clear. We must continue to constitute the trauma of 9-11 and refuse any and all attempts to dissolve it. This is the only response that seizes trauma not as an occasion to prove once again that ideology blinds us to history; but as an opportunity to show that sustaining trauma is the act that enables us to know history for the first time by apprehending-- as they go into operation-- the psychological mechanisms whereby it is denied. This epistemological stance speaks, however, to a deeper imperative. It is the only basis for an ethic that maintains solidarity with the victims. As Walter Benjamin taught, the dead remain in danger. Not just of being appropriated by the monsters who claim to act in their name, but by us whenever we sacrifice our solidarity with the dead in order to satisfy our emotional needs. In speaking for this ethic, however, I can only bow in respectful silence to those who already know it and are living it-those who have come here so that their dead will not have died in vain but will find a fitting memorial in the efforts we make to take up what has become our task: to free ourselves from everything that binds us to capitalist ideology so that the courses of action we propose won't rest on assumptions that bind us to the ideology that we must overcome.
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Walter A. Davis is professor emeritus of English at Ohio State University. He is the author of Deracination: Historiocity, Hiroshima and the Tragic Imperative and The Holocaust Memorial: a play about Hiroshima.
(1) This essay attempts to update and develop my earlier essay that appeared in Counterpunch (January 6, 2003) titled Death's Dream Kingdom: The American Psyche After 9-11 http://www.counterpunch.org/davis01062003.html Both essays are based theoretically on my recent book Deracination:Historicity, Hiroshima, and the Tragic Imperative (SUNY P, 2001).
(2) It is worth formulating briefly here the main difference between the theory of ideology I am developing and the one worked out by Slavoj Zizek. Both focus on the fantasmatic and both are based on radical appropriations of what is dangerous and unsettling in psychoanalysis. Zizek's focus on enjoyment-on the commandment to enjoy as the heart of late capitalism-stems from his insistence on maintaining an oedipal problematic: prohibition no longer works; the law of the father can only maintain itself today through the commandment to enjoy. There is much to be said for the insights this perspective provides. It's weakness however-and it can be shown that this weakness is an a priori necessity-lies in the inability of the oedipal paradigm to comprehend the psychotic drive that shapes the social whole. Zizek admits as much in The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Center of Political Ontology (New York: Verso,1999), pp.249-250 where he denies that there is a psychotic dimension to American culture. This essay-and Deracination-are an attempt to correct that view.
(3) See Boston Herald, August 4, 2003, Technology section; Wired News, July 30, 2003, Business section; and New York Times, August 3, 2003, "Week in Review."
(4) See Democracy Now, August 5, 2003. http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=03/08/05/1455235
(5) Studs Terkel, The Guardian. August 5, 2002. For this and related links on the Guardian Unlimited go to http://www.guardian.co.uk
(6) Robert Lowell, "Waking Early Sunday Morning," Near the Ocean (1967).
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