Archive for the Media Category

Blogs, Form and Sense: A Compendium

Posted in blogging, Cultural Theory, Lacan, Media, Parody, Political Theory, The Internet with tags , on August 21, 2009 by traxus4420

Maybe in the early days of blogging the medium seemed poised to open new dimensions of creative expression, where all sorts of people could express anything from themselves to other stuff. In reality, human creativity is rarely marketable as such beyond the scope of individuals and small groups. It probably has to do with being a human myself, but from the proverbial birds-eye view people and their actions look less like unique liberated snowflakes and more like snow.

Now we know there is a finite number of genres available to the entry level blogger. What is less often acknowledged is that just like corporate news, each of these genres carry with them their own structural logic of representation, which manifests as their own built-in ‘slant.’

To stay objective, we’ll avoid immediate issues (like health care) and pick some old news. Here‘s a topical AP piece from last month:

UNITED NATIONS — Out of genocides past and Africa’s tumult a controversial but seldom-used diplomatic tool is emerging: The concept that the world has a “responsibility to protect” civilians against their own brutal governments.

At the U.N. General Assembly, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pushed Tuesday for more intervention for the sake of protection.

“The question before us is not whether, but how,” Ban told the assembly, recalling two visits since 2006 to Kigali, Rwanda. The genocide memorial he saw there marks 100 days of horror in which more than half a million members of the Tutsi ethnic minority and moderates from the Hutu majority were slaughtered.

“It is high time to turn the promise of the ‘responsibility to protect’ into practice,” Ban said.

How does the blogosphere respond? I limit myself to blogs of the ‘left-of-center’ persuasion — whatever differences in ideology they may have are also differences in style. That, at least, is my working hypothesis.

The linkblog:

Unhappy Monday links:

– Think we’re out of the recession? Doug Henwood says think again.

‘Expert warns against advent of ‘Terminator’-style military robots.’ If you’re unemployed, don’t sell your Playstation — there may be hope for you yet:

The US currently has 200 Predators and 30 Reapers and next year alone will be spending US$5.5bn (€3.84bn) on unmanned combat vehicles.

At present these weapons are still operated remotely by humans sitting in front of computer screens. RAF pilots on secondment were among the more experienced controllers used by the US military, while others only had six weeks training, said Prof Sharkey. “If you’re good at computer games, you’re in,” he added.

Ender’s Game, here we come.

– In foreign policy news, the “responsibility to protect” doctrine has been getting more and more airtime. According to President Obama, there are “exceptional circumstances in which I think the need for international intervention becomes a moral imperative, the most obvious example being in a situation like Rwanda where genocide has occurred.”

As an on-again off-again pacifist, I’m deeply skeptical about any use of military force (particularly U.S.-led), but must confess not knowing nearly enough about the situation in Rwanda to make a sound judgment on that score.

– To compensate for your worries of U.N.-backed robot takeover, say hello to TOFU, “the ponderously eyebrowed robot fuzz owl with OLED eyes and some seriously rhythmic body jams.” Via (who else?) BoingBoing Gadgets.

The libblog:

I know we tend to stick to domestic politics around here, but if the Afghanistan/Iraq debacles have taught us anything, it’s that in this country we can’t afford to treat foreign and domestic policy as completely separate issues. The corporate media try to make it easy by chronically underreporting anything they can get away with, but this conditioned state of ignorance is unsustainable. The state of one affects the state of the other.

In the field of international relations, the issues of sovereignty and the right of other nations to intervene is a highly vexed issue. How do we legitimate ‘good’ uses of force, like Kosovo and Haiti, while preventing ‘bad’ ones, like Iraq? How do we reliably prevent acts of genocide, as in Rwanda or (arguably) Darfur, without risking the misuse of the same rhetoric for neo-imperialist purposes?

An increasingly important potential solution is emerging, known as ‘responsibility to protect,’ or R2P.

[here follow about 1,500 words of analysis of policy documents with links to the original pdfs)

In conclusion, a renewed liberal international order is our only hope. There is a real difference between a liberal, internationalist hegemony and an imperial, nationalist one; in fact it’s all the difference in the world. And we have the power to push our nation’s policy and culture toward the one and away from the other. Not just the power, I would argue, but the duty: religious fundamentalism and the Bush White House’s excessive response to it have shown us that universalism without tolerance is a recipe for global catastrophe.

I know I can’t speak for all of you on this one. It’s something that as liberals we need to discuss, and I urge you to get the ball rolling in the comments below. Keep it respectful, y’all.

The professional ‘expert’ as editorialist or someone who blogs under the assumption that their (usually well-respected) professional specialty gives them unique insight into events that often have little or nothing to do with that specialty:

…in my book, Twitsturbation Nation: How the Internet Generates Community, I made the argument that traditionalist notions of autocratic sovereignty would be the first major casualty of the Internet’s production of society from below, one narcissistic avatar at a time. Today, even the biggest figures in international leadership are keenly aware that Web access is changing the way politics works at all levels, from policy to advocacy, from elections to revolution. “You cannot have Rwanda again,” Gordon Brown said last month, “because information would come out far more quickly about what is actually going on and the public opinion would grow to the point where action would need to be taken. Foreign policy can no longer be the province of just a few elites.”

I don’t say this simply to brag about my foresight, but to make an important point about how attitudes change. Not long ago, the U.N. held a conference on the ‘responsibility to protect,’ a new doctrine that would set new standards for humanitarian intervention. In the past, even to attempt such a thing would have been immediately (and wrongheadedly) denounced as ‘imperialism’ by most liberals, and, post-Somalia, as sheer folly by realists. But we live in a different age. Life on the Internet is changing the way we think about the responsibility we have to one another, regardless of race, nationality, gender, or religious differences. How else could a stolen election in Iran generate such spontaneous support among the youth of its national enemy, the U.S.? It’s true that many suffering people don’t have access to the Internet, much less platforms like Twitter. But our imaginations have expanded to include them, and aid programs are not far behind. If this talk of responsibility sounds terribly old-fashioned, perhaps  one should draw comfort from another ancient adage: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The ‘literary’ editorialist or the blogger who, motivated by a frustrated ambition to be a novelist (successful novelists don’t have time for ‘real’ blogging, see below), attempts a form of online commentary that is literature in its own right :

“May you live in interesting times.” So goes the ancient Chinese proverb which is not a blessing, but a curse. And yet, even after the amused Western reader recognizes this, that ‘interesting’ retains its double edge. For we must admit that most suffering is not interesting whatsoever, even to the sufferers themselves. Suffering is common. Suffering is boring.

So it is almost surprising to the typical U.S.-ian solipsist (yours truly) to read about occasions like this, when serious policy thinkers debate in serious policy language the future of ‘humanitarian intervention,’ justifying the refocusing of the war machine with shocked, shocked descriptions of brutal, nay, genocidal violence still going on in darkest Africa. As if its persistence were in violation of some cosmic ordinance and not just the willfully impoverished cant of Empire, the Beast that rapes the already pillaged; as if the history of suffering had not already been printed in history books, academic journals, even (cough!) newspapers.

Though this is perhaps not so surprising: because politics is boring too.

And I, I struggle once again for inspiration, and the nerve (the blessed, unholy nerve) to write once again the already written.

The propagandist:

Another day, another insult to sanity:

[Ban Ki-Moon] advised limiting U.N. action under the ‘responsibility to protect’ concept to safeguarding civilians against genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. He acknowledged the possibility of some nations “misusing these principles” as excuses to intervene unnecessarily, but said the challenge before the U.N. is to show that “sovereignty and responsibility are mutually reinforcing principles.”

This is the same old messianic language of imperial violence, rephrased to appeal to latte-sipping Hardt-Negrian shills. All states are on the verge of ‘failure,’ and can only be evaluated by external criteria. Never mind the totally negligible and contingent fact that some states are ‘too big to fail.’ People are suffering, dammit!

Far from a universal degradation of sovereignty, what this amounts to is the invisible justification of a few ueber-powerful states, based on two mutually defining concepts of ‘failure.’ Under this proposed division of governmental labor, a country like the U.S. has a ‘responsibility’ (entirely unrelated to its ‘excesses’) to ‘supply’ military force to nations that, whether because sanctioned by the U.S. or on the wrong end of the international ‘free’ market, are unable or unwilling to prevent human rights abuses. ‘Success’ means either a) all nations magically achieve the status of liberal capitalist states with their militaries outsourced to the U.S./U.N. or b) the U.S./U.N. ‘intervenes’ and punishes the evildoers.


I’d go into more depth, but Lenin’s Tomb has beaten me to the punch — make sure you check out these two typically awesome and well-researched posts.

One last thing: good to see folks getting disillusioned with Obama’s domestic politics, but his ideological misreading of Rwanda and tacit support for ‘R2P’ once again reinforces the obvious: that he’s just as firm a supporter of imperialist intervention as Bush, despite his pragmatic reservations.

Let’s keep fighting, y’all.

The Critical Theorist:

The following video clip illustrates a salient point I want to make about ‘the call’ to humanitarian intervention (periodically resurrected in mainstream political discourse despite frequent criticisms; for an example see the increasing popularity in policy circles of the odious ‘new’ doctrine of ‘responsibility to protect’) as a standard ideological gesture, in Jameson’s terminology an ideologeme, “the smallest intelligible unit of the essentially antagonistic collective discourses of social classes.”

The sublime moment comes when we are told that “This is Reality” precisely because “We Have The Power To Change It.” The shift involved is purely anamorphotic, a shift internal to our own perspective: we cease to be the moral subject negatively threatened with a loss of reality in relation to the significance of its categorical claims and become this subject of transformative Power in relation to this (subsequent) representation of (the True) Reality alongside essentially Sublime objects. But this sudden shift in the phenomenological value of the image content becomes one of utopian positivity when and since it prominently features an anonymous, well-funded team of caring ‘peace core types.’ To follow Zizek’s reading of ideologically sublime objects, the paradox is hence that “pure difference” between the form of our moral subjectivity with its impossible categorical mandates and the real conditions of objective violence which underlie it as revealed by the ad’s negative perception, become the point of their greatest Truth, of their sublime Identity with ‘Reality’ through the supplement-object as the representation of the other ‘subject supposed to care.’ The starving African children become the Real of moral tragedy not because of the descriptive content their images are supposed to represent (that they are in fact in Africa which is in fact plagued by readily observable and structurally necessary economic and political instability) but precisely because they signify the point at which our categorical moral claims become meaningless, because Africa is the place in which ‘inalienable human rights’ become inapplicable in the face of the objective historical necessity of incomplete ‘development,’ and the ostensibly ‘supplementary’ fiction of the ‘NGOther’ becomes essential.

This is the paradoxical moment of the Kantian sublime, in which “a[n enjoyable] representation arises where we would least expect it” of the Truth beneath our avowed categorical moral claims, at the point of the very impossibility of fully realizing our formal categorical moral subjectivization within the symbolic order. Following Lacan’s famous reading of Kant via Sade, we can say that this reveals the truly Sadean dimension of the Kantian moral law. Just as the Sadean fantasy imposes upon the subject the impossible pathological injunction to enjoy his victim’s sublime body without any regard for the limitations imposed upon it by real mortality, the Kantian categorical moral law is “the Real of an unconditional imperative which takes no regard for the limitations imposed upon us by reality—it is [a formally equivalent] impossible injunction.” Hence the subject is ‘freed’ from burden of its impossible demands through the presentation of this very impossibility, by submitting to the ad’s ‘irrational’ categorical imperative, and thus it only fully assumes this identity in a disavowed, ‘properly distanced’ manner, through the moral object supposed to care, the transcendentally ‘free’ subject of transformative Power whose ‘gear’ begins to fill the screen.  In this sense the sublime experience is, following Zizek, strictly one of false inter-activity: as our traumatic kernel of real-life impotence/passivity is transcended by the little other(qua imaginary subject supposed to care)’s enacted desire, our real-life activity becomes structurally equivocal with the enactment of this desire in the gaze of an impersonal, unconsciously assumed big Other.

The act of donation is hence properly a phenomenon of surplus jouissance, literally the enjoyment of sense, of the (material and hence significant) making of sense: ‘joui-sense’ is precisely this sublime experience of a signification who’s meaning is only truly known by the Other object-supplement (its imaginary referent) but is formally assumed by the subject as its ‘efficient’ cause. But from the very beginning of the ad we are already ‘sublimely’ subject to the obscene injunction to enjoy ‘our’ own subjective position precisely as a barred subject, as the contingent content of the enunciation of a categorical ‘You’ that perhaps also enjoys what has now come to be the simulacral myth of Michael Jackson-type innocence: one that survives despite being foreclosed from the formal Law as such. The realized injunction to donate is hence not only a ‘truly sincere’ investiture in the sublime meaning produced, but the assumption of this impossible-real objective presentation as a subjectively necessary condition for this ‘meaning’ to exist as the retroactively attributed Truth to ‘Your’ ‘real’ activity. Is this not the perfect analogue to injunctions of ‘international law’ and their justifications? The point is to realize that both ‘support’ for any given ersatz ‘law’ devised in the interests of global capitalism’s elite oligarchs and individual donations to humanitarian NGOs are made effectively real for the subject only by passively making what is, in fact, a ‘purely symbolic’ gesture for the gaze of an assumed big Other, and that the sublime enjoyment we gather from our fundamentally passive ‘participation’ is that of producing a signification of this Other’s desire, of assuming the subjective role of an object-cause for this Other’s active enjoyment.

The hipster editorialist:

Yall. Starting to get annoyed seeing sOO many blogs and ‘articles’ about celebrities trying 2 ‘make a difference’ by applying their personal brands to ‘3rd world shitholes’ (i.e. Hotel Rwanda). I feel like ‘activism’ oriented vaycays have prior brand identity as what MSTRMers and meaningfulcore bros do in college over the summer to ‘find themselves.’ Feels ‘unfair’ for celebrities with private jets to make 10x of a difference in 1 weekend than u and me ever could in our entire lives.

It’s kinda weird how ur supposed to go somewhere where ppl are ‘less fortunate than u’ at some point in ur life. Whether it is Africa, New Orleans, Detroit, or rural Missouri, there are people who are less fortunate than ‘us’ every where. Just want to appreciate my family + personal social networks on the internet more than ever when I see people who are ’suffering’, ‘uneducated’, ‘hungry’, and ‘0% self-aware.’

Sort of feel bad that I dont ‘get’ ‘what the big deal is’ about Africa. Not sure why I’m supposed to care about ‘millions’ of ‘lil negroes’ who don’t add value to my lifestyle/product lines. It’s hard 2 integrate ‘giving a shit about the world’ with my post-chillwave personal brand. But there comes a time when every entity with a ‘public voice’ has to use their voice 4 good. I don’t know what cause I’m going to rally around, but it will probably be something tangible/meaningful in my ‘personal life.’

How bout yall?
Do yall feel like Africa should be ‘first on the agenda’ for 2k10?
Does ‘the West’ (via Barry Obama) have a ‘responsibility 2 protect’ ‘troubled regions’?
Any ideas 4 how 2 spread chill values like ‘human rights’ and access to sweet social networks to places where ‘folks can’t read’ and/or vote?
Should ppl just ‘mind their own damn business’?

The self-promoter – all blogs are fundamentally tools for self-promotion. But some bloggers are of such elite status that they don’t have time for anything else. This status can’t be gained purely through blogging, only by taking advantage of the blog’s effect on one’s career. The struggling novelist publishes with Harper Collins. The professional editorialist begins to appear on TV. Etc. While sometimes difficult to tell apart from the linkblog, the promoter”s slightly higher ratio of self-disclosure (treating the blog literally as an ‘online journal’)  is one sign that they are in fact of two distinct species — celebrities and normals. It is at any rate the final stage of evolution for all blogs:

This morning I woke up to this outside my window. Ah, Brazil. How I loathe to leave thee.

– Launch party for the new book next Friday at the Hive. Open bar after my reading. I’ll see you there.

– Interview up at DesignBlog.

– My good friends Ted Brand and Sylvie are performing tonight at the Pinhook. Mp3s available here. I (obviously) can’t make it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Show some love!

– Thanks to Kamau for bringing this link to my attention: some interesting debates going on in the U.N. about international responsibility post-Rwanda. Speaking of which, donate money to this site.

God bless.


Minstrelsy Now

Posted in Apocalypse Porn, Cultural Theory, Film, Media with tags , , , , , , , on July 12, 2009 by traxus4420

Radio City Music Hall






If I had to pick one feature of the development of minstrel-type performance from the past 30 years as the most pivotal, it would have to be the spectacularization of their audience. The white working-class demographic of original minstrelsy served as the basis for an entertainment that simultaneously redirected proletarian ressentiment toward racial stereotypes and appropriated/celebrated the racial other’s folk culture. The minstrel performer produced a fraudulent image of the black, Chinaman, etc. as a fraudulent citizen. The effect was the same regardless of whether the performer was racially black, Asian, etc. or not, though this of course did not negate whatever power was gained for individuals within these racial groups (or the group as a whole) by exploiting the minstrel images.

Today the screen includes the stage along with the whole theatre; and on to the town, state, and region. This allows the middle to upper middle class to join in the fun, albeit on different terms. Only natural that they consist of ways to avoid getting one’s hands dirty, of establishing proper distances. We’re seeing the gradual decline of the paternalistic standpoint of ‘learning about the other’s authentic culture’ (already a form of detachment from supposedly ‘direct’ or obscene pleasure) that was still present in the early years of gangsta rap. The last vestiges of those expectations are now reserved for representations of poor brown people and ‘the (vanishing, white) working class,’ and are more often the province of the documentary than entertainment. It is poverty and suffering, not culture, that truly authenticates today. Borat, for example, proved that 300 million dollars worth of Western audiences don’t give a shit about the indigenous culture of Kazakhstan. As soon as we know it’s poor, white, and backwater, we think we know all we need to.

Today, middle class liberals are not after authenticity from the minstrel show, but the patina of sophistication that comes from being in on every joke. The appreciation of skill is wholly concentrated on the performer, and wholly disassociated from the role. The minstrel character is talentless, whereas the performer’s skill is displayed by drawing out reactions from rubes which confirm that they are in fact rubes, and by transgressing (thereby reproducing) the laws of ‘political correctness.’ With Borat/Bruno/Zizek, the central minstrel figure is an obvious cliche — the joke the knowing audience is supposed to ‘get’ — even as it is the one we have to be taught: we are presumed to know nothing about Kazakhstan or Slovenia; we are presumed to find Bruno’s queer diva shtick outdated; we’re told how to find them funny. The on-screen targets of the ‘satire’ (various species of dumb whites, usually, though in Bruno there’s an episode with overly-sensitive blacks) are also reduced to stereotypes: these are the ones we are presumed to accept. A vision of a ‘real America’ is assembled via these performances. It is just as dumb, ugly, racist, arrogant, and fradulent as anyone else who aspires to what we’ve rather arrogantly branded The American Dream, and inferior to anyone who happens to be watching.

I am confused

Posted in current events, Media with tags on June 19, 2009 by traxus4420

Either it is ‘left’ to provisionally accept that the people of Iran have chosen Ahmadinejad as their president, rejecting the claims of the western media, which because of its bourgeois pro-liberal democracy and/or Islamophobic bias, and intensified by its automatic enthusiasm for social networking technology, is supporting a tiny elite segment of the middle class against the rest of the population in a purely ideological operation that may even be a psyop of some kind — while nevertheless ‘wishing all the best‘ to the protesters (who may not all fit the stereotype), confident that if carefully parsed this position is not self-contradictory —

or it is ‘left’ to do the near opposite: unconditionally support the protesters as a 21st century revolutionary vanguard while ignoring the western media, which because of its bourgeois elitist bias has blindly conflated all of rural and working-class Iran with support for Ahmadinejad (just like it was said to be only dumb country folk who ‘voted’ for Chavez), an ideological move thinly disguised by its hyper-empirical posture of  awaiting absolute proof.

This is as good an argument as any against a cavalierly voluntarist attitude toward the post-Althusserian notion that “there is no outside of ideology.” Maybe that claim should be understood to mark a historical problem and not a simple statement of fact.

Just so I’m not accused of the ideological academic neutrality of free-floating petty bourgeois intellectuals, I grudgingly (there’s no serious way to do otherwise) favor option A.


new real news:

the evil new york times is liveblogging the major protest happening right now. (Canavan‘s got that and other links elsewhere on the blog)

And 3arabawy, who I’ve been stealing a lot of links from, has lots more good ones, continually updated.


Not that anyone needs me to link to this, but lenin’s latest on this is really good. Takeaway point:

The idea that the protests are just a flash mob for the crooked neoliberal sector of the elite is unsustainable. The question of whether, in practise, all these protests do is strengthen one faction of the ruling class will be decided to a large extent by the protesters themselves. There is a huge generational shift underlying these protests, and that means that even if the present wave were to fizzle out – which I don’t think is likely – it is likely to recur in even more militant forms.


If legit, this is something:

Members of the Assembly of Experts are reported to be considering making changes to the Iranian system of government that would be the biggest since Ayatollah Khomeini set up the Islamic system in the revolution of 1979, by removing the position of the supreme leader.

Clerical leaders are also said to be considering forcing the resignation of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad following over a week of unrest since he was elected in what senior opposition leaders claim was a fraudulent election.

Responsibilities of a pundit

Posted in Activism, Cultural Theory, Media, The Internet with tags , on June 14, 2009 by traxus4420

Struggling to keep up with events in Iran yesterday occasioned some good discussions with friends, which in turn generated a few thoughts on responsibility. I’ll try to keep them brief.

The idea that allegiance to one side or another is a universal responsibility is usually taken to be constitutive of politics. Much like the injunction to get a job, this demand is usually preceded by an acknowledgment that one really wants something else: a pure utopia of some kind, or just to be lazy, ‘absolutely’ free, to give the finger to someone in authority, etc.

That is, responsible politics tends to be articulated from a position of more or less tragic realism.

An example. Mainstream commentators on the Iranian post-election protests think the election was obviously rigged in favor of a politician they were already contemptuous of, Ahmadinejad. The people on the street are therefore ‘good’ rioters who just want freedom from tyranny, like the CIA-backed ‘popular struggle’ against Chavez. Insofar as they support Mousavi, the pro-economic liberalization reform opponent, veering no further left, they will remain good. Liberal reform is “realistic,” “college-educated,” “urban,” “tech-savvy,” and “at least it’s better than Islamofascism.”

On the other side, a number of left commentators are willing to at least water down critique of Ahmadinejad’s reactionary views and repressive policies in order to resist this sort of propagandizing appropriation by the western press. I’ve even seen it argued in the past that it’s “every socialist’s responsibility” to “support” the Islamic state, along with the Taliban, Hezbollah, etc. But generally with Iran, and conservative or radical Islamic political actors overall, there is a good deal of confusion over what side leftists should take.

It’s still of course too early to tell exactly in what direction things are going, if the election really was rigged, what the strength of the anti-Ahmadinejad protests are, who is involved, to what extent they’re being irresponsibly inflated (probably a lot).

UPDATE: Then again, perception is reality, etc. (2nd link via Canavan)

UPDATE2: Some election results (via arabawy)  — check everywhere else for criticism.

But the point is there’s a relationship between wanting freedom for others and claiming freedom for oneself. Especially for anyone who considers themself a radical egalitarian, in this world siding with a national party should always be the option of last resort. I see no reason to voluntarily submit to the stupidity of bad against worse in another country when most of us are already pressured to do so in our own. It’s not ‘strategic’ for an actor in the spectacle (a blogger, say) to compromise his or her political or moral views to vicariously ‘participate’ in other peoples’ struggles. Defending Hamas or Hezbollah’s resistance (an extreme example) to Israeli aggression makes the defender neither a subject nor an official ally. On the contrary, protest is necessary when your country is vicariously participating in other peoples’ struggles. Solidarity is with people. Not their states or their twitter profiles. I find it a pretty warped idea of politics that refusal to make a show of obedience to someone else’s party line, especially when there are no material consequences for oneself either way, should be looked on as weakness, incoherence, dilettantism, or ‘bourgeois’ vanity. The opposite is closer to the truth — it is after all the MSM’s favorite propaganda tool to associate its critics with fictional cabals, while affirming the “true desire for freedom and democracy” of “the people.” The mark of the informed-but-still-ignorant pundit is to think of everyone else as the conscious or unconscious minion of a higher power, and of himself as a ghost.

To make an even more general point, I don’t pretend to know what’s best for Iranians, autoworkers, women, or illegal immigrants in their capacity as Iranians, autoworkers, women, or illegal immigrants. Being a media consumer of other peoples’ problems is a privilege. It’s a privilege to be informed free of direct involvement, not to be forced to take a side contrary to one’s real interests and desires. Which is why I am automatically suspicious of any attempt to convince me to give it up in the name of some greater responsibility that has little or nothing to do with my material existence. The ‘irresponsible’ fantasies and inner urges presumed by tragic realism (utopias, lands of Cockaygne, ‘savagery’) are figments of its own foreclosed imagination. As a blogger/pundit (an even greater privilege), my only ‘job’ — which in all but the most exceptional cases can only carry hobby status — is to listen, transmit what I hear, and attack lies told at the expense of those struggling to defend themselves.

This is all potentially useful, and I accept no guilt for voyeurism as such. But I can’t “identify” with the televised other, or “see the world through their eyes.” No revelation of exploitative supply chains, no tearjerking column in the New York Times by an ‘authentic’ refugee, no Oscar-winning independent documentary, and no Facebook group, however informative or compelling, can permit me to be them. The media’s most powerful feature requires so little discernible effort by users as to qualify as its ‘unconscious’ effect, what makes both its truths and lies maximally productive. The power to make your problems look like those of other people, and other peoples’ problems look like yours.


What I Keep SAYING

Posted in Media, U.S. Politics with tags , on March 29, 2009 by traxus4420

Greenwald on one of my favorite talking points:

Our political class has trained so many citizens not only to tolerate, but to endorse, cowardly behavior on the part of their political leaders.  When politicians take bad positions, ones that are opposed by large numbers of their supporters, it is not only the politicians, but also huge numbers of their supporters, who step forward to offer excuses and justifications:  well, they have to take that position because it’s too politically risky not to; they have no choice and it’s the smart thing to do. That’s the excuse one heard for years as Democrats meekly acquiesced to or actively supported virtually every extremist Bush policy from the attack on Iraq to torture and warrantless eavesdropping; it’s the excuse which even progressives offer for why their political leaders won’t advocate for marriage equality or defense spending cuts; and it’s the same excuse one hears now to justify virtually every Obama “disappointment.”

We’ve been trained how we talk about our political leaders primarily by a media that worships political cynicism and can only understand the world through political game-playing.  Thus, so many Americans have been taught to believe not only that politicians shouldn’t have the obligation of leadership imposed on them — i.e., to persuade the public of what is right — but that it’s actually smart and wise of them to avoid positions they believe in when doing so is politically risky.

People love now to assume the role of super-sophisticated political consultant rather than a citizen demanding actions from their representatives.  Due to the prism of gamesmanship through which political pundits understand and discuss politics, many citizens have learned to talk about their political leaders as though they’re political strategists advising their clients as to the politically shrewd steps that should be taken (“this law is awful and unjust and he was being craven by voting for it, but he was absolutely right to vote for it because the public wouldn’t understand if he opposed it”), rather than as citizens demanding that their public servants do the right thing (“this law is awful and unjust and, for that reason alone, he should oppose it and show leadership by making the case to the public as to why it’s awful and unjust”).

In fact, the more citizens are willing to excuse and even urge political cowardice in the name of “realism” or “pragmatism” (“he was smart to take this bad, unjust position because Americans are too stupid or primitive for him to do otherwise and he needs to be re-elected”), the more common that behavior will be.

I should add another rule to how to watch the news:

You Are Not A Political Strategist Unless You’re Getting Paid For It (in which case let me politely ask you to quit).

Tell Me If You’ve Seen This One

Posted in Crisis theory, Media, U.S. Politics on March 13, 2009 by traxus4420

I mean I know you already have, but still:


Identically, The Washington Post‘s David Ignatius actually praised the media’s failure to object to pre-war Bush lies as a reflection of what Ignatius said is the media’s supreme “professionalism”:

In a sense, the media were victims of their own professionalism. Because there was little criticism of the war from prominent Democrats and foreign policy analysts, journalistic rules meant we shouldn’t create a debate on our own. And because major news organizations knew the war was coming, we spent a lot of energy in the last three months before the war preparing to cover it.

It’s fine to praise Jon Stewart for the great interview he conducted and to mock and scoff at Jim Cramer and CNBC.  That’s absolutely warranted.  But just as was true for Judy Miller (and her still-celebrated cohort, Michael Gordon), Jim Cramer isn’t an aberration.  What he did and the excuses he offered are ones that are embraced as gospel to this day by most of our establishment press corps, and to know that this is true, just look at what they do and say about their roles.  But at least Cramer wants to appear to be contrite for the complicit role he played in disseminating incredibly destructive and false claims from the politically powerful.  That stands in stark contrast to David Gregory, Charlie Gibson, Brian Williams, David Ignatius and most of their friends, who continue to be defiantly and pompously proud of the exact same role they play.

On Nonviolence

Posted in Activism, Media, U.S. Politics on March 8, 2009 by traxus4420

Came across this old thing from John Berger a few days ago. Characteristically sharp. The whole thing is great (and short), but this bit stayed with me:

It is in the nature of a demonstration to provoke violence upon itself. Its provocation may also be violent. But in the end it is bound to suffer more than it inflicts. This is a tactical truth and an historical one. The historical role of demonstrations is to show the injustice, cruelty, irrationality of the existing State authority. Demonstrations are protests of innocence.

But the innocence is of two kinds, which can only be treated as though they were one at a symbolic level. For the purposes of political analysis and the planning of revolutionary action, they must be separated. There is an innocence to be defended and an innocence which must finally be lost: an innocence which derives from justice, and an innocence which is the consequence of a lack of experience.

Events in Greece, Iceland, Paris (this is good analysis on Iceland) bring back the question of violence for a predominantly nonviolent U.S. activist culture. But this can only feel like an unprecedented challenge if one forgets Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq — and this is just a few currently active sites — all involve popular armed struggle against violent occupation. If there is a widespread attitude that oppositional politics in the ‘first world’ West have a special mandate not to be violent, whether this is conceived in moral or pragmatic terms, then the U.S. is its center. With ‘unrest’ in Europe, which attacks property, which occasionally throws things at police, a set of class, racial, and cultural distinctions has at least been frayed. Governments seem to be capitalizing on the specter of more serious violence in order to establish the uprisings as ‘riots’ and justify preemptive suppression. They even go so far as to incite violence against themselves. All established practice in the U.S. The most convincing rationale for nonviolence is that the state wants it; violence from any side makes it stronger.

It’s difficult, however, to see how this situation could be permanent. Police and nonviolent demonstrators maintain a precarious equilibrium — the demonstrators reject all violence against people and most against property; the police threaten absolute and crushing violence if any of those edicts are bent. More and more often, the police cross the line at the barest provocation. And if demonstrators never crossed the line, they wouldn’t amount to much more than a parade group, celebrating their right to exist and thereby legitimating their permissive, enlightened government. There are all sorts of good practical reasons for a general policy of nonviolence for activists in most Western nations and many others. But they come down to the ideological fact that violence is morally unacceptable to ‘mainstream liberals’ — whoever they are — and can be relied upon to instantly discredit anyone who uses it without the permission of the state.  Violence can’t ‘work’ in this climate — even to otherwise sympathetic parties it always appears as an excess or at best a mistake.

Zizek’s distinction (warning: extreme bullshit) between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ violence is rephrased in all its essentials by the Joker in The Dark Knight: ‘objective’ violence is “all part of the plan,” ‘subjective’ violence is noticed, identified, attributed to specific agents and subjected to legal and ethical judgment.  But their oft-cited separation is precisely the ideological effect of mass media, not a ‘rigorous’ analytic tool; that most of us in the hypermediated first world get stuck experiencing ‘the system’ and its consequences as ‘ontologically’ distinct phenomena we struggle vainly to establish a relationship between is a symptom of our subjection.

The mainstream PR version of the move to suck everyone into an equivalent sense of ‘responsibility’ for the planet encourages identification with ‘the system,’ bad or good. Solutions then fall neatly within established boundaries, generally involving lots of self-abnegation, the advertising of ‘awareness,’ and the beefing up of NGOs. Its structural ally, often deployed by capitalists (and which Zizek chides ‘terrorists’ for in the video), defers all individual responsibility to ‘the system,’ and reads individual actions as inevitable consequences of ‘the economy’ or ‘heavy pressure from private interests and stakeholders.’ Both rely on the appropriation of the reified product of theoretical activity, the hard-won complexity of its limited, incomplete understanding of the world reduced to an image on a T-shirt. Thus the capitalist elect can avoid accountability and the seizure of their power by invoking ‘socialist’ arguments.

A universal refusal of violence has a debilitating effect on our ability to judge non-Western or even simply non-bourgeois oppositional activity in an adult way, and supplies ideologists with an easy weapon. But this problem is it itself an ideologeme — to try to discern whether it’s ‘really true’ is the question of whether to legitimate it. Attempts by leftist philosophers to theorize more appropriate universal attitudes toward violence — what I can only understand as attempts to integrate recent popular violence into some sort of spiritual substitute for an official Left party policy that doesn’t and can’t currently exist — seem, whatever their position, beside the point and even counterproductive. The proper role of a ‘utopian’ ethics in a structurally unjust class society seems an insoluble problem from within the undemocratic models of academic philosophy, even more obviously so from within the mass media debating societies that on occasion serve as theoria‘s sanctioned parody.