Monday, January 5, 2015

Are You Also Feeling Disoriented by the 'Contradictory Vaudeville of Post-Modern Politics?'

The notion that in the West, a given year ends in December and begins in January, is arbitrary.

Yet, it has a powerful amount of cultural significance; consequently, it impacts our day-to-day lives, mood, and prompts--for many people at least--a moment of critical self-reflection and evaluation of the year that has past.

2014 was the year of ISIS, mysterious and unsolved plane crashes, massacres of children and other innocents, as well as continuing economic tumult.

The United States saw a year of new age lynchings where police thugs ran amok in places like Ferguson and choked people to death on videotape in New York, gun fetishists and right-wing domestic terrorists attacked and killed their fellow citizens, the lie of "post racial" America was further shattered, and slogans such as "hands up don't shoot" and "black lives matter" signaled just anger towards a State which routinely violates the civil rights of non-whites.

These events have created a sense of disorientation and confusion among the (global and) American public. I will confess, that at times, I too have felt this same confused sense of urgency combined with fatalism: it is often easier to surrender to the onslaught of events than it is to grapple with them.

Instantaneous global communications, the false intimacy and immediacy of social media, and a duplicitous and profit seeking corporate news apparatus have combined to create the confusion and helplessness that many in the West and around the world are experiencing.

It is also important to note how those same technologies have been used by truth-tellers, resistance fighters, and those others who have the courage--and often nothing at all left to lose in this life--to resist Power.

While there are brave outliers in the United States, and the West, more generally, cultivated paralysis and disorientation among the public are the norm.

Thus the existential question, "how are you feeling?"

In a new short documentary, Adam Curtis, noted cultural critic and documentarian, suggests that if you, as a member of the mass public are feeling dismayed, confused, "blue", or overwhelmed, then perhaps it is by design.

His conclusion about the nature of post-modern politics is especially powerful:
It sums up the strange mood of our time, where nothing really makes any coherent sense. We live with a constant vaudeville of contradictory stories that makes it impossible for any real opposition to emerge, because they can't counter it with any coherent narrative of their own.

And it means that we as individuals become ever more powerless, unable to challenge anything, because we live a state of confusion and uncertainty. To which the response is: Oh dear. But that is what they want you to say.
I often default to a claim that American politics is best understood through the lens of professional wrestling: this model is very hopeful because it suggests that there is some narrative arc, one with a beginning, middle, and end, towards which the powers that be are working.

By comparison, Adam Curtis's framework of paralysis, exhaustion, and discombobulation that he describes as "contradictory vaudeville" is even more damning because 1) it is likely an accurate description of the politics of post-modernity and 2) exposes (again) the common lie and misconception that elites are interested in furthering progress and rationality as virtues for the mass public.

Curtis's diagnosis of a disoriented public--one that is prone to outbursts and momentary fits as a safety valve function, neither coordinated or an effective concerted resistance against Power--is synthetic in the best sense of the concept.

In Curtis's new short documentary, there are echoes of the genius thinker and cultural critic Guy Debord and his concept of the spectacle as a means through which mass culture and consumerism (with the mediated images and relationships they produce) are tools for control that can rob our lives of meaning:
But there are also very modern phenomena that fit its view of the world: when Debord writes about how "behind the masks of total choice, different forms of the same alienation confront each other", I now think of social media, and the white noise of most online life. All told, the book is full of sentences that describe something simple, but profound: the way that just about everything that we consume – and, if we're not careful, most of what we do – embodies a mixture of distraction and reinforcement that serves to reproduce the mode of society and economy that has taken the idea of the spectacle to an almost surreal extreme... 
the spectacle is much more than something at which we passively gaze, and it increasingly defines our perception of life itself, and the way we relate to others. As the book puts it: "The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images." 
How we confront the spectacle is a subject for another piece: in essence, the Situationists' contention was that its colonisation of life was not quite complete, and resistance has to begin with finding islands of the authentic, and building on them (though as what some people call late capitalism has developed, such opportunities have inevitably shrunk, a fact captured in the bleak tone of Debord's 1989 text Comments on the Society of Spectacle, published five years before he killed himself).
Baudrillard, whose prescient thinking was bastardized and distilled down for popular entertainment such as the Matrix films, as well as the under-appreciated Existenz and Dark City, is one of the other foundations upon which Curtis builds his claims regarding post-modern vaudeville politics.

As summarized here, for Baudrillard, the world of simulations and "simulacrum" have replaced the real and the authentic:
The term "simulacrum" goes all the way back to Plato, who used it to describe a false copy of something. Baudrillard has built his whole post-1970s theory of media effects and culture around his own notion of the simulacrum. He argues that in a postmodern culture dominated by TV, films, news media, and the Internet, the whole idea of a true or a false copy of something has been destroyed: all we have now are simulations of reality, which aren't any more or less "real" than the reality they simulate. 
In our culture, claims Baudrillard, we take "maps" of reality like television, film, etc. as more real than our actual lives - these "simulacra" (hyperreal copies) precede our lives. Our television "friends" (e.g. sit-com characters) might seem more alive to us than their flesh-and-blood equivalents ("did you see what Jerry/Rachel/Frasier did last night?"). We communicate by e-mail, and relate to video game characters like Lara Croft better than our own friends and family. We drive on freeways to shopping malls full of identical chain stores and products, watch television shows about film directors and actors, go to films about television production, vote for ex-Hollywood actors for president (is he really an actor? Or a politician? It doesn't matter).  
In fact, we get nervous and edgy if we're away too long from our computers, our e-mail accounts, our cell phones. Now the real empire lays in tatters, the hyerreal map still quite intact. We have entered an era where third-order simulacra dominate our lives, where the image has lost any connection to real things.
Post-modernity and the dominance of digital culture have culminated in a crisis about the very nature of reality and authenticity. The late 20th and early 21st centuries are typified by a surrender to mediated images and life experiences. The massive amounts of information provided by the Internet and other digital technologies are overwhelming to its users because sheer volume is no substitute for knowledge.

When coupled with the rest of the entertainment industrial complex, the mass public is plugged into a veritable experience machine, where they are fed "news" and "information" about a given outrage, curiosity, or celebrity interest of the moment, and then said items are discarded without closure or coherence, replaced by the next faux crisis or thrill.

In all, 21st century America is, as Chris Hedges has pointed out, an "empire of illusion".

To wit.

There are protests against police brutality and thuggery while the state is increasingly anti-democratic and non-responsive. The civil religion extols the merits of voting and participation while the deep state, submerged state, and surveillance society ignore, misdirect, and subvert the people's will. The United States is a neoliberal corporate plutocracy that simultaneously claims to be the world's greatest democracy. A black man in President of the United States; yet, institutional racism and white supremacy continue to negatively over-determine the life chances of blacks, Latinos, and First Nations peoples.

As I discussed in a recent two-part conversation with Al-Jazeera and's Paul Rosenberg for The Chauncey DeVega Show, it is easy to surrender to political hopelessness and disorientation in an era of neoliberalism, Austerity, reactionary white racism, and the culture of cruelty.

The essential question thus becomes, how do we fight for human dignity and freedom in the face of a regime of power that deftly combines punishment (mass incarceration, police violence, surveillance, wealth and income inequality, job insecurity, and the destruction of the social safety net) with pleasure (great riches for the casino capitalists, omnipresent and distracting social media, advertising, and consumerism)?

Moreover, are protest marches, "Twitter hashtag activism", and voting to legitimate a system that is beholden first to the interests of the banks, financiers, and 1 percent against the People, an effective strategy for positive political and social change in the United States and the West?

Once again, how are you feeling? And what are you personally doing to resist the impulse towards trained disorientation in the age of post-modern politics?


KissedByTheSun said...

This post is very Neil Postman like.
I'm feeling empty.
For the most part I've given up television. My wife and I decided when we moved not to buy cable or set up a TV in our living room. This has been a tremendous help in cutting down stimuli that was manipulating our emotions. Plus it made sense not to pay for shows and stations we didn't watch. I've discussed on here before how I've given up much of my gaming habit save for a little pac man or Tetris here and there. Disconnecting myself from white male power fantasies has given me a boost of inner peace. I do find myself with more time on my hands. I don't find myself bored however. Yet, in my most quiet moments I feel empty. I believe it's a realization of how much of "me" is not me but the "me" the mass media wants me to be. I feel empty because I'm filled with things that are not real. Which is why I want to spend more time with reality.

SW said...

I unplugged from cable a few days ago. I am not on facebook, twitter, or really any other form of social media. I'm a youngish person and even so, those forms of social interaction make me uncomfortable because they are so contrived and one-sided.

Miles_Ellison said...

I don't feel disorientation. I feel disgust and contempt

SW said...

My quick reading of the Debord link reminds me of the way in which seemingly everything that once comprised one's daily life a few generations ago has been wriggled away and sold back to us. There was a time when most people knew how to build a shelter, grow or hunt their food, make clothes, or just generally create something out of nothing. Today, everything is presented to us in a package digital or otherwise, we consume it, and move on.

I do think that people are aware of this and are trying to choose a different path such as trying to grow some of their own food, and make other less standard decisions.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

I'm watching a terrible conversation envelop over this meme about how feminism destroyed the black family.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

I can't contribute to the conversation because it's too personal and I know how they will use your identity against you.

Basically, they are saying real men don't do house work and will never feel complete if they stay at home. And women should do housework because it's more fulfilling to them as women.

chauncey devega said...

Why do you wallow in such fetid waters :) Bad for the soul my friend.

chauncey devega said...

Please do share. About what and why?

chauncey devega said...

I was semi-unplugged for a week or so. Good cleansing feeling. I am not really online as much as many except for WARN. Can't imagine what it would feel like to be tethered to a "smart phone", obsessing over Twitter and other mess.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

There are a couple of people that are good. I thought I was in better company, but they keep coming out.

chauncey devega said...

Got to reread Postman. Hadn't reviewed him since college. Your comment sparked a thought as I added his book on the dangers of technology to a syllabus for a class I am teaching next week.

chauncey devega said...

Showing their dirty butts.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

I really think that conservatives hate America and Americans. Conservatives I have spoken with solely focus on moral decay and family life and how horrible Americans are, especially black Americans.

Most Americans are wonderful people. Families come in so many ways and this reductionist, and frankly boring and stupid, way of talking about social dysfunction is useless.

KissedByTheSun said...

Which book? "Amusing Ourselves to Death", or perhaps "Technopoly"? I just finished reading "Technopoly" and found it prophetic to say the least. I'm currently rereading "Amusing Ourselves

Myshkin the Idiot said...

I also think about what you've brought up before. Why does the left tend to back down instead of staying in?

I just can't use personal things around the types of people in that forum.

chauncey devega said...

Technopoly. I need to go back to his book on childhood.

James Estrada-Scaminaci III said...

The two-part interview with Paul Rosenberg is not at the Chauncey DeVega show website. Is it forthcoming?

chauncey devega said...

Sorry for the confusion. That show is done and will be posted in a few weeks. The next two shows are on hip hop music, culture, and popular music more generally.

Blueluv68 said...

Thank you. This was insightful and honest. Many of my friends, family and colleagues have been feeling the "fatalism " of their daily lives , and don't know why. I'm a child of the eighties; and I have seen the great "discombobulation" of the internet. The over-stimulation of social media is duplicitous and beguiling. Lately I've been aquainting myself with Neely Fuller Jr. , Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, Hidden Colors 1,2 &3, and Dr. John Henrik Clarke. I thank you again for being a voice of reason/critical thinking in the post-racial-multicultural-age-of confusion. Amandala Sistahs and Brothas.

OldPolarBear said...

You are right about conservatives hating America, to the extent that America tries to live up to its supposed ideals of democracy. They want authoritarianism, some of them to be in charge and some of them to submit to it. Actually, most of both dominate and submit, up and down depending on where they are in the hierarchy.

"Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy," says the excellent essay by Philip Agre that I have mentioned here before.

OldPolarBear said...

It's kind of like bread and circuses, except they've gotten so good at the circuses part that they don't bother with the bread anymore.

Smgjcr said...

You posed some great questions:

How do I cease feeling like a impotent, disconnected tool playing into the hands of the "illuminati"?

How do I deal with the disorienting vaudeville of politics and popular culture?

How do I avoid the spectacle and simulacrum and find authenticity?

I've tried to get off the stage and pay no attention to the audience (or the man behind the curtain)

I don't chase the virtuous vice that is fame and influence. I don't have followers, Facebook friends, likes, or fans of any sort. I don't have a soapbox blog and I'll never be trending. I'm the antithesis
of trending -- I've changed my name to Jane Dow. You won't learn anything about me via a search engine. Obscurity and anonymity mean my life is my own -- I'm working towards authentic.

The vast majority of us will never achieve immortality or self actualization in the here and now via fame, Today even the most influential social commentators are unlikely to permanently reroute public discourse. (After all there are no original thoughts -- perhaps)

Here's how I strive to do to feel a sense of power and authenticity in my own existence-- to live in a tangible reality:

I try to limit my interactions with others via electronic medium ( save what is necessary for my vocation).
I try not to listen, watch, or read all but a few vetted and balanced "legitimate" news sources.

I try to cultivate my relationships, my senses, my own philosophies. I try to question my motivations, my biases, my assumptions, reality and truth. I try to treat acquaintances and strangers with dignity, respect, and (when I can muster it) kindness.

It may be a vast oversimplification-- but that's what I do. Thanks for posing the question Chauncey -- I never thought about in those terms before.