Archive for the Cultural Theory Category

Political Culture

Posted in Cultural Theory, Politics 2.0, U.S. Politics on September 14, 2010 by traxus4420

Before getting lured away by topicality in my last post, I was about to make a point about ‘pseudo’ politics.

An epigraph to start:

“A thought is sometimes beyond the thing that it binds itself to in the course of resisting it, and that is its freedom. Freedom follows on from the subject’s need to express itself. The need to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth. For suffering is objectivity impinging upon the subject. What the subject experiences as its most subjective thing, its self-expression, is mediated by objects.”

– Adorno, Negative Dialectics

And next, a hypothesis: politics in the 20th century has been organized around the development of methods for control of the mass. It hardly needs to be added that non-state actors such as international corporations are at least equally involved. Political common sense says that modern politics = mass politics.

Despite all the noise about social networking, the basic ends remain the same. It’s just that the object ‘mass’ is being obsolesced as a useful heuristic, as capital’s free access to bodies, minds, and information becomes deeper and more intimate. Everywhere we see continuing development toward a completely controllable sensory environment – the grand synthesis promised by digital, biotech, neuroscientific, and architectural innovations, a world where ‘environment’ finally stops being a sloppy metaphor and becomes both empirical thing and technocultural object, virtually equivalent to ‘society’ itself. Whether this dream is ever actually realized anywhere is beside the point — it is the general direction of capital investment, assimilating even humanity’s attempts to stave off its own self-destruction, and so other possible lines of development are a priori subordinate. Another world is improbable.

Democratic ideology, on the other hand, insists on a definition of political agency that contradicts this current. Its ideal world consists of discrete, independent entities that are self-directed and thus individually responsible for their actions, as well as the stability of their relationships with others. Institutions are made up of individual actors, and the whole self-similar structure works best when all its parts are formally in agreement, an outcome which is never assumed but must be painstakingly arrived at through processes of deliberation. As Marx argued, the brave new world of capitalist utopia relies on the individualist ethical structure provided by democratic institutions while steadily eroding their ideological foundation: ‘enlightened self-interest,’ or the link between self-determination and mutual support.

Most public debates in the U.S. are waged by advocates of these two sides: the defender of democracy vs. the prophet of the artificial paradise. I use democracy in the broadest possible sense here; despite their differences, most advocates of anarchism, libertarianism, and liberalism tend to rally around the theme of autonomy, of freedom from coercion by an oligarchical state apparatus or ‘runaway’ corporation. Ideal collectives are imagined to be local and ad hoc (“grassroots” to use the current lingo), formed around a single issue, such as the management of a co-op, or a defense of civil rights, their duration inversely proportional to size. Large scale changes to political structure is where agreement breaks down, but the range of opinion seems to be between a) regulating institutional excesses (the liberals) and b) somehow guaranteeing negative freedom, as in “life would be better if we didn’t have x corrupt institution and we could do y ourselves” (the radicals).

Indeed, the very notion of collective (like ‘community’) implies a sense of ‘naturalness,’ of intellectual and affective immediacy: a group of more or less equal individuals who can communicate with each other without the assistance of an unwieldy technical or institutional apparatus. There’s even something counterintuitive about applying it to national populations, social classes, consumer demographics, and victimized ‘minorities,’ which, despite the fact that states, think tanks, sociological studies, and Web 2.0 corporations can ‘map’ their individual members to an unprecedented degree of detail, can only be popularly conceived in terms of the consequences of their (mis)management by elites. The mass as future reward — cue sentimental fantasy of universal community — vs. the mass as imminent punishment — cue the unpredictable, threatening mob.

The mass demonstration is a primitive form of political mobilization that serves to reinforce the limits outlined above more often than it points beyond them. Yet it remains the most reliable means of popular political change, because it subverts institutional ‘decision-making’ routines with ‘spontaneous’ collective agency. It frees a population from its bureaucratic context, allowing a group that normally appears as a particularized ‘identity’ (African-Americans, anti-war activists, community members, etc.) to make a direct, ‘universal’ claim. This is why left-wing protests are not only repressed and mocked in the corporate media, but the very future of the tactic is coming under attack. One can imagine an eventual compromise in which mass demos are legitimized in the same way that voting is, once they can be cheaply dispersed without damage to life or property. Once again we would have the familiar dilemma of liberal reform: many more people would be allowed a voice in mainstream political discourse, but at the cost of their political independence and the future of an independent left.

Enter cultural politics. To pick out one consequence of postmodernism that superficially seems to bolster democratic ideology: a free-floating notion of ‘influence,’ detached from the authority to determine policy, the possession of economic assets, or common interest, is broadly accepted as the true basis of legitimate power (even liberal and conservative defenders of the Status Quo are unhappy when people say it lacks ‘popular support’). So ideologically ‘culture’ has a privileged position, if a quixotic one — the sphere of human activity where individual freedom can express itself freely, a kind of virtual democratic utopia where participants compete for the right to influence behavior in the other, more restricted (and therefore less ideal) spheres of modern society. Where their secret truths can be read, where the future of the whole can be divined. In practice, every message has to route through the culture industry, which means every message must become a commodity. The results are familiar: politicians are celebrities, politics is entertainment, every movement must be branded, etc.

But lest we float off into ’90s-style hyperreality, we should remember that Baudrillard did nothing more than describe the subjective experience of the first world petty bourgeois consumer. There never was an absolute split between culture and reality for a regime of simulation to erase (just like there wasn’t one between mind and body); that pantheon of mythical divisions is commodity culture’s chief ideological product. Like other media commodities, Baudrillard’s theory of the simulacrum persuades us to imagine the problem for which it is the (merely intellectual) solution. What we see instead is the disciplining of culture into one of the most progressive forces of production and accumulation, one that relies on fantasies like the simulacrum (or ‘immaterial labor’ in another discourse) to give it a false sense of consistency and inevitability. The difficult thing to come to terms with, and what makes certain empty figments of postmodernity so attractive, is that the idea of ‘culture’ we’re taught to mourn is already a fantasy. What Raymond Williams argued began as an ideologically overdetermined reaction to 19th century industrialization, today does not necessarily refer to a shared history, creed, ethnicity, national identity, sexual orientation, commodity preference, or any difference at all; it can finally be used as a sign of contentless authenticity, indicating not the right to exist, but the factual existence of something closed to theoretical questioning (though no less urgent for that): the culture of poverty, the culture of ownership, business culture, geek culture, cultural influence, the culture of success, the culture of intolerance.

These various ‘cultures’ are more like environments, bubble-like ‘spheres of influence.’ Instead of defining the conditions for kinds of agency, they assume only a single kind, addressing the individual as a consumer (not necessarily of the culture commodity in question but of ‘culture’ at large) presumed to have some vague degree of influence over cultural ‘style.’ The most obnoxious version of this is the idea that we as ‘smart shoppers’ (or ethical shoppers, most advocates try to convince you that they’re the same thing) have the power to reverse climate change. However, it’s no less realistic than the claim it’s usually set against, that we have the political power to stop climate change despite being non or semi-organized. Certainly ‘we’ in the form of the many activist, labor, community, and consumer organizations we are free to join, can take effective action against coal power plants, get people we agree with elected, and encourage whatever ‘green’ production processes CEOs think will still be profitable, but the idea of a bunch of protests and boycotts passing a climate policy adequate enough to stave off armageddon is as doomed as trying to convince Bush or Obama to leave Afghanistan ‘prematurely.’ Not only is it true that elected officials will only act in their constituency’s favor if pressured to do so, they can only be pressured to do what will allow them as a class to retain their privileges. And today, the needs of biological life and the needs of capital are rapidly, catastrophically diverging.

All impotence aside, as long as we’re obligated to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals, responsibility for the collective consequences of our individual actions is a necessary consequence. This is impossible as either a citizen or a consumer. So, we go crazy. Tightening the double bind, the rhetoric that accompanies political and economic disempowerment is one of increasing empowerment, though with any hint of antagonism censored. That society’s improvement hinges on all of humanity transforming themselves into ‘responsible individuals’ is the polar opposite of liberating. Now I don’t think this ‘politically empowering’ rhetoric of ethical responsibility can be entirely dispensed with, even if it is tied to our subjection by a false individualism. But I don’t think it’s any more or less a part of the spectacle than the ‘politically disempowering’ rhetoric of the masses. They are, in the poststructuralist jargon, just conduits for different technologies of control that are currently in the process of becoming interoperable. The people of the world are mobilized according to the latter, ‘objectified’ form as well as the former ‘subjective’ one, and the conditions of appearance of the mass, not just the networked individual, have to be mastered if they (who are we) are ever to move beyond it.

Polygraph Issue 22: Ecology and Ideology

Posted in Apocalypse Porn, Cultural Theory, Environmentalism with tags , , on September 13, 2010 by traxus4420

aka What I’ve Been Doing For The Past…er, I’d rather not say how long. Look, it’s an academic publication. By graduate students, even. Read more on the homepage.

If any of this sounds interesting, you can buy it on Amazon, which I normally wouldn’t recommend but it’s sort of hard to find otherwise. Don’t worry, I’m not making any money.

Not on the cover: a long introduction by the editors, and a (critical) review of Lee Braver’s A Thing of This World and Graham Harman’s book on Latour by me. Both can be found in PDF form via the link to the homepage. Don’t worry, collegiality is strictly maintained throughout.

As co-editor I’m not allowed to pick favorites, but even the pieces I disagree with (some more violently than others — readers of this blog will probably be able to guess which ones) are at least well put.


Individual article summaries here via co-editor Gerry Canavan.

Musil and Beck on Pseudo-Politics

Posted in Cultural Theory, U.S. Politics with tags , , on September 6, 2010 by traxus4420

“Every investiture of the ideal feels itself as a false ‘we.’ It is a ‘we’ that does not correspond to reality. ‘We Germans’ is the fiction of a commonality among manual laborers and professors, gangsters and idealists, poets and film directors, a commonality that does not exist. The true ‘we’ is: We are nothing to each other. We are capitalists, proletarians, intellectuals, Catholics…and in truth far more — and beyond all measure — caught up in our own special interests than we are concerned with each other. The German peasant stands closer to the French peasant than to the German city dweller, when it comes down to what really moves their souls. We — each nation for itself alone — understand one another very little, and fight or betray one another when we can. We can, to be sure, all be brought together under one hat when we plan to squash it on the head of another nation; then we are enraptured and have a shared mystical experience, but one may assume that the mystical in this experience resides in its being so rarely a reality for us. Once again: this is just as true for the others as it is for us Germans. But in our crises we Germans have the inestimable advantage that we can recognize the real connections more clearly than they, and we should construct our feeling for the fatherland on this truth, and not on the conceit that we are the people of Goethe and Schiller, or of Voltaire and Napoleon.

There is always and in all ages a feeling of insufficient congruence between public life and real life. But can anything at all in public events be the true expression of real life? Am I then, as an individual, that which I do, or am I a compromise between unarticulated energies in me and transforming external forms ready to be realized? In relationship to the whole, this little difference gains a thousandfold in significance. Aside from passive persistence, an unnatural alliance of interests can be held together only through a common interest in using force against others; it does not necessarily need to be the force of war. But if one says that mass hypnosis is at work in times when wars break out, this is only to be understood as an ordered system exploding because of its inadvertently neglected tensions. This explosive stimulus, with which the human being liberated himself and, flying through the air, found himself together with his own kind, was the renunciation of middle-class life, the will for disorder rather than the old order, the leap into adventure, no matter what moral names it might be given. War is the flight from peace.”

— Robert Musil, “‘Nation’ as Ideal and as Reality” (1921)

If anyone epitomizes the strengths and weaknesses of what Marxists (almost always hypocritically) call ‘bourgeois consciousness,’ it’s Robert Musil. Brilliant in every conceivable sense, disrespectful of any special distinction (or lack) attributed to the humanities or the sciences, arrogant, and committed to nothing but observation. His class’s highest ideal, the intellectual synthesis of social contradiction, is well enough torn to shreds in the first volume of Mann Ohne Eigenschaften, but it remained the horizon of his thought. And this impossible holding out is what is so attractive about him, for me anyway: his relentless negativity, his unwillingness to propagandize for anything or anyone, even when contributing some measure of practical support. A sympathetic stance but an intolerable one for any writer who intends for their ‘passion’ to serve worldly ends.

A political writer does battle on the field of propaganda. Perhaps all writers are political; English professors today are fond of saying that all culture is political, suggesting (as no one else but David Horowitz does) that even their own writing is potentially significant. So what is a successful propagandist today? Let’s take Glenn Beck. The apparent contradiction between his visibility and lack of political importance is suppressed by pointing to his ‘cultural influence,’ which democratic ideology implies is more important than political or economic power. Beck’s ‘we’ is the same as ours: it tries to communicate the feeling of political engagement to a mass of spectators who have been steadily dispossessed of any active role in the democratic process, but who have unprecedented access to ‘culture.’

Now Musil seems to argue that while the “special interests” we are concerned with are “beyond all measure,” if one must give an estimate, material interests are where one should start. And this is the basis for community that nationalism denies. To awkwardly import a critique of commodity culture: its atomizing effects take place not solely through creating feelings of loneliness and alienation, but through simulating community. According to Musil, this is the necessary function of all political rhetoric. He assumes the traditional liberal tie between politics and the state, but his simultaneous and sympathetic awareness of socialism creates some interesting ambiguities. That he characterizes nationalism and war as dangerous forms of escapism is not new, nor the idea that heroic ideologies such as these reject as inauthentic some version of “middle-class life”; more perplexing is his suggestion that the “leap into adventure” and the promise of conflict is necessary to motivate any large-scale collective project. Are all so-called common interests experienced by default as “unnatural,” even in the midst of conflicts that — given proper materialist analysis — could have been predicted as the “natural” product of “neglected tensions” in a social system? If this is true, then organization based on imaginary interests is indistinguishable from organization based on material ones. All politics become pseudo-politics.

The phenomenon of the Tea Party, like other episodes of partisan hysteria, highlights a possible practical difference between America’s liberals and its vestigial left. Realizing that Beck is a tool of the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch is necessary for any effective response, but informing Tea Baggers of their real material interests doesn’t take place within a vacuum. For the liberal democrats, who are prohibited from acting on any knowledge gleaned from examining things more closely than their opposition, the key strategic controversy is whether to attack the Tea Party or ignore them (at the moment, the progressives do battle while the Democratic establishment concentrates on selling them out). For the left, the ideal thing to do would be to try to hijack their organization — not the die-hard ideologues or financial backers themselves, but the popular base. This would undoubtedly require difficult ideological compromise, but unlike liberals, leftists are not structurally incapable of it, though they may be incapable of actually accomplishing the task (probably impossible if left to underfunded petty bourgeois media workers).

Admitting that Tea Baggers have ‘real grievances’ is an honorable gesture, but without some attempt to establish solidarity the point is academic. What liberals find terrifying and the right finds exhilarating is not so much the content of the ideas (warmed-over libertarianism spiced up with a few paranoid fantasies and tolerance for bigotry), though these are easy for both sides to pontificate about, but the manner in which they are posed: anti-intellectual, contradictory, belligerent, self-pitying, enthusiastic, shameless. As a complete performance, it’s the antithesis of every dubious perk that goes along with liberal or progressive self-identification. What if democracy’s ‘worst excesses,’ and not enlightened reason or a good protestant work ethic, were the true revolutionary values, for ‘them’ as well as ‘us’? Revolution is not a dinner party, nor is it a lecture hall, and politics is not limited to designing entrance exams for imaginary utopias.

Read This Instead

Posted in blogging, Cultural Theory on August 18, 2010 by traxus4420

If anyone still checks this thing, you should read my acquaintance Christian Thorne’s blog instead — he’s doing what was doing a while ago (and may once again), except better.

Aesthetics of Apocalypse

Posted in Apocalypse, Cultural Theory, Environmentalism, structuralism, Zizek with tags on May 28, 2010 by traxus4420

In the eons since my last post, Haiti suffered a few more secondary quakes, then Chile had an earthquake, Iceland erupted, covering the skies with volcanic ash, Greece’s ongoing crisis spiked again and got bailed out, Thailand tried to have another revolution, American liberals continued to fantasize about right-wing revolt, then British Petroleum vomited death all over the Gulf Coast. And Tennessee got flooded. Of course it hasn’t been anything close to eons, just a couple of months. Though unstylish, Bill McKibben has the right idea: the bad old days of ‘alienation’ from Nature are over. We don’t even live on Earth anymore.

So let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that we’re living in the end times. Even for someone as preoccupied with the unimportant as I am, the loop linking apocalypse culture product — CGI spectacles of urban destruction, zombie movies, post-apocalyptic video games, David Simon’s new show, Treme — to its critics — academics, magazine critics, bloggers, anyone with a Facebook account — didn’t occur to me as something worth considering until Roger mentioned it in the comments below and elsewhere.

So then I did consider it, and my conclusions are just as depressing as everything else. First, it seems clearer to me now than ever before that that which the authorities designate as ‘popular culture,’ rife for most of its existence (but especially now) with apocalyptic fantasies, is about as helpful for thinking about shifts in public consciousness, utopian desire, and affects, as a BP press release, or one of Obama’s speeches. Films like 2012 or even marginally more intelligent ones like 28 Days Later exist to provide an imaginary audience with the experience of what it’s supposed to think and feel. Reductionist, yes, but to militate too much against reductionism on the consumption end gives a free pass to reductionism on the production end. If the zombie film should be the most self-aware manifestation of long-term cultural regression, its sense of irony has already grown stale and decadent; the basic premise of the genre, the horror of limitless need in a limited world, is a limit on thought and feeling that stopped being productive a long time ago.

We live in the high point of a moment when previously discredited genres like science fiction, fantasy, horror, and superhero bildungsromane have cache among critics, when high and lowbrow just as often refer to different perspectives on the same object as they do different objects. I suspect the vogue for these texts is grounded in an aesthetic sympathetic with modernist architecture’s dictum that form should express function. In the great non-psychological literary tradition of Voltaire or Kafka or Borges, ‘genre’ texts do not assume any relationship between individual psychological experiences and universal significance; they merely announce a set of rules and perform a series of variations, allusions, and allegorizations geared toward maximum readability. The interesting ambiguities lie in just how the pieces fit together: is Deckard an android? Or in the fine points of allegorical reading: does Tolkien’s universe embody a paganized Christianity or a Christianized paganism? Or in how to parse an ethical dilemma: is it ok for Batman to surveil all of Gotham? Does Jack Bauer really need to torture all those Muslims? Whose revenge is justifiable in Hostel (try Martyrs for a more interesting version of this question)? The world is grasped as a theoretical structure that can only be interpreted, known, and/or changed by structural means: the physical actions of a character, the revelation of a secret, the destruction of the world.

Here is Benjamin Kunkel profoundly not getting it in the pages of Dissent from a while back:

“Our literary sci-fi novels are bereft of strongly individual characters—the apocalyptic ones even more depopulated than they know, the clone narratives at least bespeaking the anxiety that their characters are redundant—and the ongoing merger of genre fiction (where the reader is accustomed to finding no complex characters) with literature (which no one would think to accuse of being indifferent to individuality) has allowed the liquidation of character to pass virtually unnoticed. And this, it seems, is likely to be among the most accurately futuristic features of the “literary” genre novels: they will have been the harbingers of a literary sea change in which complex characters are rejected by critics and ordinary readers alike as morally unattractive (compared to generic heros), hopelessly self-involved (because capable of introspection), and annoyingly irresolute (because subject to deliberation). These prejudices are already articulate and operative whenever fiction is discussed, thanks in large part to the incomplete literature-genre fiction merger, and the prestige such prejudices acquire through that merger allows them to be expressed without the taint of philistinism.”

The thoughtful reader of anyone outside the trajectory of Jane Austen, Henry James, and the 20th century American short story will no doubt scoff at Kunkel’s naivete, though it is post-Lacanian, Post-Jamesonian critics whose tastes are being caricatured here. But do his retrograde views on the centrality of psychologically complex characters to fiction imply anything different in practice to this more ‘modern’ taste for structurally transparent riffs on popular genre? Don’t both use their tastes to justify giving special attention to a limited set of individual, ‘properly cultural’ texts? There are clear echoes of the Richardson-Fielding debate over interior account vs. mock epic, or character vs. author, a productive dissensus essential to the ‘rise of the novel.’ As a bored Alec Guinness intoned at the end of Star Wars, death only makes certain individuals stronger. The author-function is now an empty signifier through which any number of historical forces, zeitgeists, and collective fantasies can be read.

As a corollary, a masterpiece today is not necessarily the work of a heroic, individual master, but an individual text that metonymically summons the world on stage. Even better, really, if no one is responsible — a neo-romantic aesthetic, not of nature or natural genius, but of public opinion. Surely the problematic merger between fine art and mass culture Kunkel sees operating in literature is both a) not restricted to literature and b) somehow linked to the perception of ideological transparency of popular genre products, considered more popular the more rigorously processed for the market they are.

The contemporary-apocalyptic impoverishment of the word ‘culture’ to refer to the sterile contradiction ‘lifestyle’ vs. ‘fiction,’ culture’s near-total commodification, is, I think, precisely what creates the expectation that it should ‘tell us something’ about human experience that no other source can. That something includes an associated pantheon: Society, Values, The Unconscious, Desire, The Will to Utopia, Ideology. But what can a discourse so increasingly cut off from everything that might give it content ‘tell us’ beyond itself? Despite its recent topicality, no major blockbuster is likely to reconnect the zombie to Haiti, its place of origin, or Africa for that matter — that would be ‘racist,’ or, rather, would acknowledge in too clear a light the racism that underpins the entire genre (though Japanese video game designers have no such compunctions). There are many other examples. If we grant that the apocalyptic is a dominant discourse in need of parsing, shouldn’t it be more useful to see how it works in the context of actual events than to restrict ourselves to the universe of fantasy conjured by the spectacle (and its supplementary critique)? The same questions can be asked in the context of real-time ideological warfare. On BP’s oil spill for example, the points of entry are too numerous to list more than a few: the company’s cosmetic concern for keeping the oil concealed, underwater, where it can do even more damage; the technocratic fantasies of elite teams of scientists solving our problems a la Armageddon.

By no means am I trying to dismiss the traditional objects and methods of aesthetic criticism once and for all, whether for ideology critique or for anything else. But I do want to make a point about professionalism and myopia.

Take today’s politics of apocalypse. Obscene levels of corruption are publicly announced every day. Everyone is “fiddling while Rome burns.” BP executives wining and dining government officials, the general prostration of public interest to oil conglomerates common to both Obama and Bush Jr.’s administrations, JP Morgan executives inventing credit-default swaps while drinking heavily at a post-fraternity bacchanal. The scandal, that which is in excess of the justice/injustice of the results of the deals, is that they are made unofficially. Any charge of corruption comes after the making-public of a community existing behind the explicit democratic structure of official discourse, in (dialectical) contradiction to it. As has been all too evident lately, the public revelation of what everyone already assumes, even if it is a critique of illegitimate power, can only strengthen it if nothing is done as a result. The critic who speaks from the imaginary position of either the ‘letter’ or the ‘spirit’ of the law thus always risks extending the power of a ruling elite at the expense of democratic legitimacy as a whole. It is in just this sense that the social critic is in league with her target (despite the necessity of her function), a kind of court jester, producing the aura of authority in the very act of ‘speaking truth to power.’

Is it really much of a stretch to say that when we media critics — today we are all media critics (we are all ‘intellectuals’) — discuss a Hollywood film or a bestselling novel, we are in the same situation? Just as the professional ethics of journalistic ‘objectivity’ insist that reporters stick to official public facts and statements, professional aesthetic criticism focuses primarily on ‘culture,’ which (just as in the ‘rational public sphere’ of press releases and stump speeches) is dominated by the official statements of entrenched powers. They will forever be scandalized by the entirely pedestrian difference between a given discourse and everything else. That old insult, ‘idealist,’ should then be updated to refer to anyone who is ‘just doing their job.’ A reporter should never deal only in official facts; a film critic should never only write reviews; a philosopher should never write ‘pure philosophy.’ Impartiality is irrelevance.

This also entails that we suspend the notion of ideology as a unitary discourse, such that no field, type, genre, or medium can contain ‘the key’ to its structure. If searching for and retrieving that key is the only value Arts & Entertainment are thought to have, then they are by definition worthless. The Zizekian argument about ideology (which I borrowed above in modified form) holds that distance from ideology just is ideology — the claim that one ‘really is’ in excess of the law (whether as authentic human being, social critic, or scheming corrupt politician) even while continuing to perform one’s ideological function flawlessly. In typical Zizekian fashion, to be ‘really subversive’ is not to point out the difference between illusion and reality, but to follow the public law in spite of the unwritten law (the law’s ‘obscene supplement,’ aka the ‘way of the world,’ aka the ‘antithesis’ stage of the dialectic), thus embracing, as he puts it, the “‘crazy’ totality in which a position reverts to its Other in the very moment of its excessive exaggeration.” Don’t just do something, sit there! Conformity is dissent! For Zizek everything refers back to ideology, especially its ‘outside.’ He uses the term ‘ideology’ to indicate the transcendental structure of whatever happens to be the ‘dominant social practice,’ with other social practices just orbiting planets unless they perform the impossible feat of usurping the center. This apparent failure to distinguish between the CNN news ticker and its consequences is really a feature; his ‘innovation’ after all is to avoid the complexities of mediating between (say) Hollywood, the Pentagon, and Wall Street by taking screen reality at face value, reading Red Dawn and Afghanistan in exactly the same way.  As tea leaves.

Which is to point out a dead end, an exhausted discourse, and redirect attention to its ‘context,’ for lack of a better, less bureaucratic term — that which the Borg-like pretensions of so many theories of ideology disguise, no less effectively than utilitarian theories of personhood and efficient markets. Ideology is not, for example, prior to class, or gender, or petroleum. It is not a singular ur-text; ‘in itself’ no more than an empty term that brings strangers into contact. The truism ‘everything is ideology’ suggests instead that there is nothing left to discuss once that contact is established. A speculative, aesthetic definition of Apocalypse Culture might then be: a tendency of otherwise unrelated discourses to collapse around their nonexistent center, to hypnotize each other into talking about nothing. My friends and I, I feel (I can’t think it), have lost an ability possessed by earlier generations to speak without paying tribute to a ghostly imperative to negate ourselves, whether through a meticulously defined but meaningless jargon, or stutters, lapses, and interruptions between vague sentence fragments wrapped in protective irony. Since (according to us) we can only speak about ‘the world’ in terms of commodities, doing so always seems like a ridiculous prospect, even if necessary at times. The only grand statement about the zeitgeist I feel capable of making is that when I watch C-SPAN on YouTube, or read press releases and news websites, I see what looks like the same thing. So we are deaf and dumb. But which is ‘dominant?’ The structural void of ideology that supposedly ‘explains’ our ‘failure to communicate,’ or the 39 million gallons of oil devouring the Gulf Coast?

(Ideal) Self-Recognition

Posted in Art, blogging, Cultural Theory, The Internet on October 29, 2009 by traxus4420

In recent years, some people have adopted the list form only to strip it to its foundation, yielding ultra-simple pages consisting of sequences of images cobbled together with little or no explanation, each image radically different from its neighbors, each likely to confound, amuse, or disquiet. These web pages are often “personal” pages belonging to artists or groups of artists. Text is relegated to minimal captions in these Internet wunderkammern, and sometimes abolished entirely.

Let’s call such a page a hoarding. The word can refer to a stash of collected goods, but can also mean a billboard, or the temporary wall thrown up around a construction site. The look of the hoarding is similar to that of a particular type of artist’s book that has flourished in the last 15 years or so, featuring page after page of heterogeneous images, a jumble of magazine scans, amateur snapshots, downloaded jpegs, swipes from pop culture and art history alike, some small, some full-bleed, none with explication. The similarity is not coincidental, for “the last 15 years or so” defines the Internet age as we know it, with its ubiquitous, colorful mosaics, evidently a powerful influence on publishing of all kinds.

What can we say about the experience of scrolling through a hoarding, trying to understand the procession of pictures? As in traditional fashion magazines, we find excitement and confusion in equal measure, with one catalyzing the other. Beyond that, it often seems that any information or knowledge in these pages is glimpsed only through a slight fog of uncertainty. Has an image been spirited out of the military defense community, or is it journalism; is it medical imaging, or pornography; an optical-illusion, or a graph; is it hilarious, disturbing, boring; is it doctored, tweaked, hue-saturated, multiplied, divided; is it a ghost or a vampire? In any event, the ultimate effect is: “What the fuck am I looking at?” Something that hovers in your peripheral vision.

One might ask, how does this depart from the queasily ambivalent celebration of the image that has characterized the last fifty years of pop culture, possibly the last century and a half of mass media? It could be the muteness of the offering, the lack of justification or context. But the observation that modern media divorce phenomena from context is a commonplace, and usually an invitation to reflect on the increasingly fragmented nature of experience. A hoarding is notable because while it is a public representation of a performed, elective identity, it is demonstrated through what appears to be blankness, or at least the generically blank frenzy of media.

This may be a response to the embarrassing and stupid demands of interactivity itself, which foists an infantilizing rationality on all “Internet art,” and possibly Internet use generally, by prioritizing the logic of the connection, thereby endorsing smooth functioning and well-greased transit. Recourse to the almost mystically inscrutable may be understood as a block to the common sensical insistence on the opposition of information to noise, and as a form of ritualized unknowing.

It could also be a dismissal of the ethos of self-consciously generous transparency that characterizes “web 2.0”: the freely offered opinions, the jokey self-effacement, the lapses into folksiness in the name of a desire to forge reasoned agreement and common experience among strangers. It is wise to mistrust this earnest ethos, which is inevitably accompanied by sudden and furious policing of breaches in supposedly normative behavior. This is not to argue that such consensus building is disingenuous, rather that it is simply politics, in the sense that politics is at heart concerned with separating out friends from enemies. In this view, the hard-fought equilibrium of an orderly on-line discussion is indistinguishable from its scourge, the flame war: reasonably or violently, both aim at resolution and a kind of confirmation of established precepts. Might a hoarding—a public billboard that declines to offer a coherent position, a temporary wall that blocks reasoned discourse—escape the duty to engage ratio and mores and resolution, in a kind of negative utopian critique? No, it probably cannot. But the perversity of its arrangement of pictures speaks for itself, and what it speaks of is manipulation.

Seth Price

One cannot just set the pro forma Schmittian (just to give it a proper name) logic of this piece aside, but it is a rather elegant illustration. A ready made image for someone else’s ‘hoard,’ and my first revision would be to replace that 18th-century insult with a coinage from one of blogdom’s dearly departed, an Arcades Blog. Which is itself another reference, which is the whole point. Why does a series of captionless images have to be irrational or perverse? One can imagine future art historians concluding that the age of mass marketing’s greatest achievement lay in convincing the world’s consumers that images (and through the backdoor, ambiguity) are a priori the language of unreason. Certainly images can be used to think. More pernicious is the idea that images which are ‘simply’ affect manipulators (that is, have ‘nonsense’ as their manifest content) are for that reason lacking in logical sequence.

Immaturity. Escape. Vertigo. The cynical romance of commodities.

Though I have made frequent use of the photo montage on this blog, a more concentrated experiment can be found here. Even something like this, an image or two posted every now and then, sometimes with words, sometimes without, all apparently fitting the idea of the ‘hoard,’ is not without pattern or immune to meaning. If the wunderkammern were overdetermined by the excessive display of strange and uncommon objects, the image blog (here‘s one of my favorites; here‘s another) is a collection of moments of an all-too familiar process of circulation, captured, and in that moment of capture recirculated as something novel, their significance altered. ‘Defamiliarized,’ even. Even when their authorial anchor is just an arbitrary sign: traxus4420.

My naive intent for the tumble blog is the same as with this one: for each post to be useful as part of a new process of thought. Failing that, it is also made to be ignored. Is a challenge to ‘common sense’ possible with these things at all? If so, it can only be by demanding different kinds of attention and different kinds of thinking. Because the facade of irrationality that merely prompts us to “reflect on the increasingly fragmented nature of experience” is advertising. Though it might be all that separates one from the other is the presence or absence of a product.

Speculative Activism

Posted in Activism, Cultural Theory, current events, The Internet, U.S. Politics, Utopia on September 5, 2009 by traxus4420

This post is in response to a funny thing that happened a couple days ago on Facebook. Gerry Canavan comments on it here:  throughout the day, “thousands” of Facebook users posted a pro-health care-reform message as their ‘status update’ in  a sudden outbreak of ‘viral activism.’ The whole thing peaked when Obama himself joined in. Watch the virus spread here.

As Gerry puts it:

We saw the same phenomenon early in the summer during Iran’s so-called Twitter Revolution, which had two overlapping and sometimes conflicting modes: the use of Twitter by people within Iran as a organizing and news-distributing tool and the use by people *outside* Iran for the purposes of vicarious participation in political struggle. Then, as now, the important thing is to signal you’re on the right side of a fight in which you are otherwise just a spectactor — then by tinting your Twitter avatar green and now by posting a shared slogan as your status update and then leaving it altered for the rest of the day. We could go back to 2008 and 2004 elections, or to any number of other charged moments, and find similar memes at play.

The question posed by this sort of thing is clear enough: should it count as ‘real’ activism or is it just a mass twitch  in the general direction of utopia, a show put on for the official media and for ourselves.

Any answer has  to start by considering it as quite literally a form of consumerism. It’s a full step further in that direction than the email activism of organizations like MoveOn, which rely on the recipient to take some sort of minimal action, like making a phone call, writing a protest email, signing a petition, which MoveOn transfers directly to its prearranged target, usually a professional decision maker. These older forms are carried onto Facebook as well, but they’re weaker on this platform, easier to ignore, and require different techniques to get them to work. A ‘status update’ or a ‘tweet’ can superficially seem more democratic — after all, no institution is telling the user what to do. But in practice this ‘act’ is identical to the ‘choice’ of the market.

That our very existences on social networking sites are commodities is an often overlooked fact. Given an existence wholly circumscribed by a virtual marketplace, everything we do, everything we post, is potentially a commodity by virtue of its link to ‘us.’ In ‘viral activism,’ by reproducing a more or less homogeneous message (a ‘meme,’ one of the few instances where the word actually refers to something), a population makes itself available as a single commodity for use by others in exchange for  individual use of the same message as a ‘status update’: an advertisement that promotes a certain identity to their ‘friends’ (and to themselves). The only difference between this and any other Facebook content is that this ‘mega-meme’ is produced ‘from the ground up.’

These are not simply semantic distinctions — they have consequences.  Virtual activists do not organize themselves in the way real activists do, i.e. form permanent or temporary political units such as parties, mobs, parades, whatever, directed toward a specific set of goals. Even when activists remain law-abiding their actions are intended to stage a confrontation, to disrespect boundaries that may not be acknowledged by the law. A social division is made, exchange relations dependent on certain forms of equivalence are foreclosed (i.e. politeness, personal space, a traffic intersection, etc.). As long as it’s part of a larger strategy from the beginning, this is true even of petition-signing. Virtual activists on the other hand are always responding to/initiating various types of interpolation from within an institutional setting (the site’s apparatus) that automatically neutralizes all it touches,  like ‘interactive’ television. A Facebook group is just a passive ‘tag,’ another identity accessory for the individual user and a commodity that passively awaits outside use (a social ad). As long as their virtual existence  is immanent with that institution (they remain members), all actions are wholly included within it, with zero remainder.

What are social ads good for? By aggregating the many status updates into a single product, they provide something for the bigger blogs and journalists to ‘report’ on (really just an outgrowth of tagging), and  from which a political meaning can be derived or invented. First and foremost they generate conversation, and since most of it will refer to Facebook if not occur on its platform they also indirectly generate more Facebook use and more prestige, a ‘status update’ for Facebook itself. Whether or not any of this can ‘make a difference’ is dependent upon how these commodities are employed by others.

The effects of this latest capture of the social reflect how our tiny plots of spectacular real estate turn us into micro-celebrities, where even to contemplate ‘action’ forces us into a narcissistic obsession with our public image, no matter how inconsequential it may be. Celebreality shows and the higher profile of porn stars in recent years show us that has-beens and nobodies fighting for table scraps will play the game of recognition even more ferociously than Hollywood royalty. The public face of this private complex is when celebrities, politicians-as-celebrities, or now you-as-celebrity endorse certain causes, ultimately all responsibility rests on YOU to act, even as the possibilities for action of the relatively elite YOU being addressed (the YOU who can be expected to take Them seriously) are increasingly observed, micromanaged, routed into narrower and more regulated pathways.


A final comparison to opinion polling is helpful in getting at the ideological function of social activertising. Unlike polls, the opinions of users don’t appear as already existing truths, dependent on the work of experts on ‘real’ demographics, but those truths actively expressed. Where a poll is employed in speculation — what x group ‘really thinks’ at a given moment is valuable as evidence for what actions they might take in the future — a wave of status updates or green-tinted Twitter profiles appear to assert themselves as political facts. No research or fact-checking need be done to evaluate truth claims when the phenomena is just the free and unsolicited manifestation of truth, like votes or sales figures. These ‘actions’ thus merge the legitimacy of a poll with the immediacy of activism. Virtual activism is more real than statistics (which are ‘always’ rigged), more legitimate than protests (which are ‘always’ dangerous).

Jonathan Singer (see link above):

While the vast majority of the political organizing I see on Facebook tends to come from the same names — friends working in politics on a full time basis — what is remarkable here is that these status updates containing a strong and clear message in favor of healthcare reform are coming not only from the political community but also from those whose lives are not immersed in these fights. These are regular young people, all around the country, speaking out in favor of reform. This movement is impressive and surprising, and, at least from this vantage, quite newsworthy.

This is what everyone said about Iran, the rhetoric directing us to understand these movements as made up of “everyday” people, free of the supposed dangers and ‘biases’ of ‘professional’ activists. Of course there is a selection process for which ideas can ‘filter up’ from the social network ‘netroots’ and what kinds of users can do what that tends not to be acknowledged. This selection process is, broadly speaking, class-based.

Here is a great article on one example of how class manifests online, the great divide between Myspace and Facebook with some very illuminating (and horrifying) quotes from teenagers. Facebook has clearly won the PR battle, easy to do when the New York Times’ reporting staff and most of its readership is made up of Facebook users. Facebook is the appropriate platform for politics, just as Myspace is the appropriate platform for your ex’s rock band and various sex offenders. This doesn’t even count the selection process for who gets to be on the Internet to begin with. And yet, through the magic of social networking, it is the Facebook community which is quickly establishing itself in the 24-hour image universe as the new legal-utopian definition of ‘the people.’ The obvious impossibility of this fantasy doesn’t mean it won’t have certain effects.

For a demonstration, let’s put on some ruling class spectacles and look at some pictures. Isn’t this:


infinitely preferable to this?


See? You didn’t even have to think about it.