Tag Archives: media studies

The Internet and the Protestant Ethic

When I was younger I had a Sunday school teacher who insisted, long after cable internet became the standard, on keeping her AOL dial-up account. I asked her why. She told me that she would use the time of the slow loading screens to pray, and felt that upgrading her internet would therefore shortchange God. For the rest of that year I was in her class, my mind would drift off toward imagining her whittled down British accent mumbling the Sh’ma over the screeching dial tone as the little hour glass icon would fill and tip over again and again…

The mythologies of technology and of magic have had a long intertwining dialectic. Their terminologies and means of dreaming their futures have made with the hostilely witty repartee of the man and woman in a screwball romantic comedy for some time now. Science fiction’s relation to the longer history of allegorical literature is that of a reversal; the deus ex machina becomes the deus as machina.The radical unexplained narrative shifts that at one time were the defining characteristic of lazy writing become the new social realism. Where looking at a culture’s “low” objects was once the anthropologist’s condescending lens toward understanding the root beliefs of an unfamiliar society, this lens has been turned back on us with a vengeance as critic after critic attempts, sometimes with incredible effectiveness, to search for the underlying identity of America in its most disposable cultural products. We have been, as McLuhan put it, brought into a new tribal relation with ourselves.

The angry Old Testament God is replaced by the feeling of totalistic paranoia that a thing is punishing us for our hubris that’s felt far beyond the more obvious spheres of the anarcho-primitivists and neo-luddites. In those whose economic well-being has been made through the medium of the computer, the internet is more frequently posited as the thing that replaces God in rewarding or punishing those who maintain the Protestant work ethic. These are both manifestations of the logic of old religious folk tales going back to Job and earlier; the narrative discontinuity that favors us is the favor of God, that which cripples us His retribution. That the shift of history now seems to work in continuous radical discontinuities, this societal function of the God figure is no longer necessary; like a Twitter feed, a rapid pronouncement of judgement from an unknowable ether updates itself in “real time”.

The internet revolution is Protestant in character; the great texts are made easily and readily available to the layman while the justifications of an elite’s claims to power grow more circular in their logic; those that follow the logic of the machine are amply rewarded, those that falter are rightfully punished; those that seem to follow the strictures of the internet but struggle must not actually be following its will, those that willfully don’t are idlers who deserve their lot. Internet trolls’ earliest justifications for cruelties like putting a rapidly blinking gif on an epilepsy forum was that the forum users should have had safeguards in place to stop them. Given the seeming novelty of the case at the time, this logic was seen rightly as horrific; however, how different is it from the rationale that undergirds the economic marginalizing of a vast majority of the population as being inherently disposable, the logic of the 1%, the logic of endless attacks on single mothers and the most marginalized and exploited among us-the Mexican immigrant-as the thing “destroying the country”, the Protestant shaming of the person who sits outside the predetermined boundaries of what constitute “usefulness” or success in this warped society?

That what the internet has become is so predominantly Protestant is of course not a thing made so because of anything “inherent” or “essential” in it beyond that it was developed and propagated within the strictures of a capitalism that was already Protestant. So long as we still exist within the framework of capitalism, any mass dump/”redistribution” of “power” such as the internet is still largely controlled by where the money in its various streams was situated before its arrival and takes a position in the popular mythology simply as a means of shaming the larger populace for their impotence in converting it into money. So long as capital continues to accumulate to a smaller and smaller group at the top, any game short of outright revolution is still ultimately the old one on the playground wherein the larger kid grabs the smaller kid’s hand and mockingly slaps him in the face with it while saying “Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself!”

The internet, like the Christian pretexts to imperialism, was dreamed as a great tool of decentralized raising of an uninformed populace. And like the Christian missionary project, this liberation is rapidly being repurposed for fear it won’t being coming strictly from the top down; for fear, as Zizek might put it, that the principles and dreams that the internet was founded on might be taken more seriously and literally by the user than the Steve Jobs’ with their cynically laughable claims to having “revolutionized” something larger than a technology. For the moment, the internet is simply as the Ipad was to the Iphone; a larger vessel for the same old thing to operate in. But as we learn from Marx, within this new form sit the contradictions that make possible its overthrow.

As the internet revolutionizes society in a distorted repetition of how industrialization did, so we need a new book that can lay out the internal contradictions of this new paradigm in the manner Capital did in the prior epoch. Marx has already helpfully laid out some useful terms in a gift basket from beyond the grave; “fictitious capital” for one. But we must do the rest of the work to bring about the new manifestation of the communist Idea.

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?