Escape into the Missing Self

The vernacular discourse of what constitutes “American values” and the way someone will say they believe in ghosts or spirits have too much in common for them to be entirely separated in good conscience. The person who claims they saw a ghost will say “I don’t care what you say! I know it was there! I saw it.” The American sentimentalist will produce no end of fall narratives for when the country “went off course.” When questioned, they’ll say “I know this! I just feel it.”

We think ourselves engaged in battles of the factual when we’re in fact fighting over the supposedly slain ghosts of our desires. The strict epistemology of the betrayed ghost’s wishes mask the desires of the one evoking the ghost and their compounded desire to never get what they actually desired; the point of acknowledged appeasement is the beginning of painful isolation; the thing that can only eat must continue to eat or face the prospect of eating itself. The identity of the consumer, the even greater specter haunting the American present than capitalism though spawned from it, is this desire to eat faced with the possibility that the great questions of the future don’t revolve around what to eat next but when we consider ourselves full. The contradictions of capital resolve themselves in the vengeful reemergence of old mythologies when they can’t resolve themselves comfortably in the space of the real.

The marketer is the shaman who evokes new ghosts that appear to the marketed as the specter of their past disappointments, dressed up to the appearance of nobility or, even better, relatability.

Says Wikipedia: “The bald eagle is an opportunistic feeder…Bald eagles also regularly exploit water turbines which produce battered, stunned or dead fish easily consumed.”

So I ask one uncomfortable question in three formulations:

What haunts America?

What is America’s self?

What does America want?


As the justifications to what constitutes unambiguous quality in the arts collapses into the theoretical subjectivity of pop culture studies in which this blog is complicit/a valuable contributor and the commercial subjectivity of market research, two trends that distinctly co-exist and intermingle in the varied fields of media studies, media psychology etc., the question of whether the canon is simply the valorized self reflected back becomes extremely uncomfortable for anyone looking for anything besides the validation of their self from the “gatekeepers”. The line between emotional and physical pornography, neither delivered “physically” in any strict sense is similarly blurred. The media criticism of the left exists in large part to draw the borders between “propaganda” and “art” and in this project finds itself commingled more with the critiques of the disillusioned bourgeoisie of the Horkheimers and Adornos than the desires of the “pure” oppressed who exist in the worker and the actor whose lack of free time has left them with little recourse to engage with “junk culture” by means of subverting it into reflections of self.

However, the market can tolerate and cheer this process on. The market wants identification with the product; symbolic artifacts of “feminism” expand the frontiers of consumption aggressively into territories of moral obligation. What was once the subversive reversal of roles that came from the unconscious expressed repression of the taboo desires of “the other”, the semiotic democracy that gave some semblance of liberation theology in these popular texts, has instead become the disturbingly commodified need for the society as a whole to pat itself on the back for its own consumption.

I recently finished watching many many episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; it was entertaining but ultimately stands with much of the rest of the US TV canon as emotional pornography. Reassuring stories heard many times before were told once again but with the genders reversed. Its innovation was in opening up new avenues of emotional pornography to social groups which had, until now, not had access to the hard stuff so they could mainline it. In some sense this is progress; but the process that humanizes “the other” sneaks in the trojan horse of legitimizing the sins of the larger culture. The largely empty symbolic of the TV genre courts the skewed reading of the powerful who have access to the megaphones. The act of conscious reading itself is largely outsourced. To engage, even critically, is to legitimize. This is a conundrum.

The function of pornography for the viewer/reader is to create a bridge toward their insertion of their imagined self into the suggested power dynamics of the image and in doing so create the capacity for the ultimate power fantasy of their desired surrounding and relation. Narrative ambiguities are circumscribed into set, flattering parameters. Emotional pornography works similarly but goes less detected for its lack of straightforward qualities. It draws the viewer into a safe, non-judgmental space wherein they can project their fantasy selves without consequence.

In drafting this essay, I hesitated for a moment to use the word pornography; “pornography” is a word that haunts. It less describes a thing than lays itself over it,  a word that reads events all on its own. Like “terrorism”, a categorical. It holds the charge of the zeitgeist and exists to shift things into the realm of the wrong. It creates the cloud of absolute moral judgment and in its evocation pushes itself closer toward a specific definition or emptiness that neuters its usefulness. Part of the hidden but universally known intifada of pornographic materials brought about as the consequence of the internet that cannot be spoken of without carefully being separated discursively from the “legitimate” streams of the internet. Like the culture at large, the whole enterprise loses much of its ideological justification if it might be exposed as an elaborate way to justify sexual release. Would this be to expose it for what it is?

5 thoughts on “Escape into the Missing Self”

  1. I don’t think any one mind set can be said to be “American.” There are “human” values, but these are as individual as fingerprints, and hypocritical (we are all hypocrites, if we are willing to face the truth about ourselves). In the end, we all want a cheeseburger and to get laid now and then. We talk about love and peace and justice and equality and freedom (and we truly think we want these things because they sound so noble); but mostly we want to eat and have sex and nap and be entertained. As long as our fundamental needs are being met, anyway. The rich will keep oppressing the poor (subtly and not-so subtly). Everyone has an agenda. Everyone wants to sell us something. No one has a lock on “the truth” about anything. As Kurt sang: “all alone is all we are.” We make our little noises, piss into the wind, then we die. Maybe we did some good stuff and some bad stuff. Maybe we led marches. Maybe we watched Internet porn and ate bbq potato chips. We saw, we came, we turned to dust. I know, I’ve probably missed your entire point, but it was still an interesting post and it made me think and it made me want to respond–even if in a nonsensical way.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post! The reason I keep evoking ghosts is the reason you pretty clearly laid out: there is no single thing that’s “America” but there are a lot of things floating around ethereally that are evoked as its masks when people write social criticism on the internet or elsewhere.

      As for nonsense, I’m all in favor. If you want something especially tasty to chew on re: nonsense, look up ‘Pataphysics. Lots of fun and funny stuff there.

  2. The strict epistemology of the betrayed ghost’s wishes mask the desires of the one evoking the ghost and their compounded desire to never get what they actually desired…Narrative ambiguities are circumscribed into set, flattering parameters…

    What does any of this actually mean?

    Are you in the process of inventing a new language?

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