-Yes, I, a grown ass man, have gotten hooked on watching various iterations of the Canadian media juggernaut Degrassi. And I took notes. These are not all of them.
The several hundred mass shootings that have happened since Columbine have produced some literature from the shooters detailing their political ideologies or lack thereof. Given that a common complaint from the right leading up to their current moment of hysterical mass psychosis was “why does everything have to be political?” despite their clearly saying so for political reasons about everything from Colin Kaepernik to an imagined war on Christmas leaves me wondering whether these acts can and should be taken as acts of political terrorism and warning signs of our current situation in retrospect.
Columbine as Political Terrorism, Anti-Politics as Politics
The Oklahoma City Bombing, ostensibly a white supremacist response to FBI overreach in the handling of the Branch Davidians in Waco Texas, was framed by the Columbine shooters in the numerous written and taped materials later confiscated by the FBI as the opening shot of a “political revolution” of…well…there wasn’t an ideology, simply resentment and bloodlust. No one at the time looked at Columbine as a political act because it was politically incoherent. Yet over time, future shooters ranging from the V-Tech shooter to Vester Flanagan would cite the Columbine shooters as “inspirations” while carrying out similarly cold-blooded and politically incoherent shootings. These spiked in frequency in the years leading up to the current crisis to where there was nearly one per day, and met their official counterpart in a rash of racially motivated killings of unarmed black people, many of them disabled or children.
We are now stuck with a president who lacks any ideology beyond the glorification of resentment and violent displays of power. We are now stuck with a Congress and Senate that state their supposed remorse for the children killed in Newtown, the thousands of others in Las Vegas and elsewhere, then refuse to do anything to stop or even slow down their occurrence. They are essentially tossing Puerto Rico out the airlock as I type this. Our Republican representatives are sadistic voyeurs, mesmerized by the spectacle of their own deepest violent fantasies being offered as tributes from a distributed gestapo the way people burn goats as offerings to the devil.
If I might be allowed to play a game of id, ego, super-ego:
-The Congress and Senate Republicans are the super-ego who pose as the moral authority but are in fact just getting off on both the authoritarian thrill of screaming at the spectacle and the cozy, insular benefits it disproportionately accrues to them.
-The base is the id. The Republican base, perhaps best exemplified by Sandy Hook trutherism and Pizzagate, has grown increasingly schizophrenic and detached from reality. They aren’t guided by conscious concerns or their surroundings; they reimagine their surroundings in order to justify wanton indulgence of base impulses. It’s not a coincidence the people claiming they need guns “for their safety” are the ones assaulting people with them, that they believe they’re the chosen agents of Jesus Christ when they worship wealth.
-The ego is…irrelevant at this point? John McCain?
While much of the rise of the right could be seen as simply a perfect storm merger of the collective interests of white supremacists, Christian fascists, internet trolls, individual billionaires and large corporations, what ultimately brought them together were sustained outbursts of mass psychosis defined by mob violence and outright denial of reality-Gamergate, the police shootings of blacks*, the genocide by neglect going on in Puerto Rico, the denial that any children were shot in Sandy Hook.
The NRA, the 2nd largest right wing organization in the US behind the Republican Party, has a financial incentive to want mass shootings, because every time one happens, gun and gun accessory sales spike. Yet I think their hearty embrace of Trump and the violence of the current moment isn’t exclusively financial, though they have every financial interest in guerilla civil war breaking out and have even basically threatened it in recent advertising. This is after all an organization that exists as much as a culture of violent paranoid fantasy as a gun rights advocacy organization. They have been incredibly racist for most of their existence. They use “thugs” and “home intruders” as dog whistles to mean “black people” in tons of their literature. Their most famous spokesperson got the job because he was famous for screaming “Those damn dirty apes!” for fucks sake.
Violence as anti-politics is hardly a new phenomena, but has been accelerated through the return to tribal politics facilitated by the internet hive-mind and the slight decline in the financial fortunes of the privileged non-oligarch class.
Two years ago I wrote about the exceptionally banal manifesto that accompanied Elliott Rodger’s drive-by shooting in Santa Barbara, CA:
Rodger’s “manifesto” tells us a bit more. The MRAs, like Roof’s Stormfront folks, are the product of white men revolting over the fact they might not be as privileged as they once were. But Rodger more clearly outlines the surreal banality of the spiritually dead culture of privilege he was an extension of.
Rodger spends portions of his manifesto nostalgically lamenting how everything was fair and right with the world when he was a young man playing Pokemon, and how happy he was there was brand synergy between the cans of Mountain Dew he was drinking and the World of Warcraft MMOs he was playing. I’m not making this shit up, it’s all there. Rodger may have been the most boring person who ever lived.
By being more boring, Rodger takes on a weird interest. His privilege, and he had tons, is not enough. He fears the universe is manifestly unjust; that maybe women can’t actually be bought. In more optimistic moments he clings to the hope that maybe they can be bought but he just can’t afford them yet.
The surreal climax to his autobiography/manifesto describes his staking whether he’s going to kill himself and go on a shooting spree or not on whether he wins the Powerball lottery. He spends his time driving 8 hours across state lines because the Powerball tickets weren’t available in California. He can’t buy other lottery tickets because he doesn’t consider anything less than a couple hundred million dollars capable of making his life anything other than a story of someone tragically wronged by fate.
Part of how he’s wronged is by being a white man who can’t get literally everything he wants right this second. This being wronged doubles over on itself because his mother committed the cardinal sin of not being “white” so he can’t feel as fully wronged about his not getting everything he wants as he could if he were unambiguously “white”. Rodger spreads white supremacist diatribes all over his manifesto despite his being mixed race because white supremacy is an aspirational ideology.
Remember when Charles Koch, a man whose net worth equals a couple dozen Powerball jackpots and whose whiteness probably attracts moths, said when he was caught stealing oil from an Indian reservation: “I want what’s coming to me, and that’s all of it”?
Maybe Rodger was right about himself. He wasn’t crazy. He was just a loser.
Of course the opening shots of a revolution of anti-politics would be incoherent. That was the point. The longer we keep pretending the right is acting on rationales of anything besides the naked display of power through spectacles of opulence and terror, the more shit we’re gonna have to deal with later.
*It seems worth noting that Trump thinks the Central Park five did it but OJ Simpson is innocent. Perhaps by killing and sexually abusing Nicole Brown as violent tributes to the patriarchy, Simpson became honorarily “white” in Trump’s eyes. Trump clearly sees some of himself in Simpson and therefore could never believe Simpson was guilty.
The cultural industry of Hindi cinema has banked upon its geographical richness since its inception. While the inclusion of every season and the festivals therein is quite balanced, it is unequivocally the representation of monsoon that sets up aesthetic metaphorical constructions on the silver screen. Whether it is Kuleshov Effect or the use of montage, the idea of representing monsoon as an alienated concept from the central narrative or ‘life’ of the characters is a notable Brechtian characteristic in Hindi films. Such conception of monsoon is presented as an idea in itself that provides a perspective on the lives of the characters involved rather than becoming a naturalised happening of their milieu.
It is because of aforementioned reasons that I went on to call monsoon a ‘signifier’ in itself. When songs such as Pyaar Hua Ikraar Hua (Love Happened) from the movie Shri 420 and Bheegi Bheegi Raaton Main (In the Rainy Nights..) showcase romance between the two protagonists, it is not the romance that is realistically evolved and subsequently expressed in common parlance. It is a romance that is showcased as romance itself. Romance which has its ideological presence separate from the presence of the lovers involved. Therefore, in both the songs mentioned above, the idea of romance does not become synonymous with Raj Kapoor and Nargis or Rajesh Khanna and Zeenat Aman. Rather, it is the creation of the idea of romance itself through which the cinematic positioning of these characters are understood. So, this distinction between romance as an idea and the characters as mere forms of it, makes monsoon a cinematic as well as cultural signifier to represent the signified (romance).
After understanding the alienation effect that Hindi cinema creates and has created over generations between the monsoon as a language and the characters as content, we shall now look into the various meanings that monsoon generates within the representational system of Hindi cinema.
- Romantic Anticipation – The two songs mentioned above are a perfect examples of monsoon being used to describe the romantic anticipation and blossoming curiosity between the two lovers. Another addition to this can be a song that came almost three decades later – Sawan Barse Tarse Dil (Monsoon hovers as my heart craves). In Sawan Barse there’s a shift away from the context of isolation as shown in the previous two songs. Unlike Pyaar Hua and Bheegi Bheegi Raaton Main, where lovers are shown in an isolated atmosphere under a moonlight sky, Sawan Barse uses Kuleshov Effect by using the busy streets of Bombay to show the carefree mindset of the two lovers involved. However, there is hard to trace the Screen A – Screen B direct metaphorical juxtaposition in the third song, it becomes evident in the closer analysis of the music video. Thus, I believe that completely crediting Kuleshov for this would not be a perfect idea but the commonalities are also hard to ignore. A notable example of a piece where both the isolation effect of the previous two songs and the carefree effect of the third song intersect can be Aaj Rapat Jaaye (If today I tumble down) starring Amitabh Bachchan and Smita Patil.
2. The Longing – In the era of 90s and early 2000s, monsoon acquired a much more sexual connotation in terms of using representations of cravings and fantasies. In Tip Tip Barsa Paani (As the rain drops) and Lagi Aaj Sawan Ki (Today, the rain is falling like old days) there is intense use of emotions and clever use of editing by utilizing more space while building upon developing sexual desires. Such was the heat of these songs, that Raveena Tandon’s orange saree from Tip Tip became a major symbol of sensuality and sexual liberation in pop culture. Another notable example of this category can be Saanson Ko Saanson Se from the movie Hum Tum (You and I) where the red saree of Rani Mukherjee and the beautiful set up of two lovers rolling on the beach sand under a moonlight is a visual delight in itself.
3. The Liberation – Out of all, this is the most celebrated representation of monsoon in the Hindi cinema. And, I would say, the most relatable. Although, the relatability of this representation comes as a rite of passage to carefree state of mind, and probably goes against the Brethian principles, it still saves the grace by not creating the empathetic relationship between the audience and the character. In Barso Re (Let it rain) and Bhaage Re Man Kahi ( My heart take the strides) it is the breaking of the monotony, the creation of the antithetical to gender roles, that comes across as the most fascinating use of monsoon as a signifier. While in Barso Re, we see Aishwarya Rai celebrating her freedom of choice to choose her own lover and the further course of life, in Bhage Re Man we see Kareena Kapoor, who plays a bar dancer, taking a time off her constructed reality to subsume herself in the bliss of falling droplets. In both of these songs, it is the momentary split between the character and the context, between the constructed reality and the unguided display of liberation that creates a beautiful trajectory for the audience to analyse monsoon as a concept alienated from the narrative of the film.
Although Hindi cinema is decorated with blissful songs on monsoon, I had to quite painfully restrict myself to a handful. However, I feel that the songs that have been discussed above are quite deserving symbols of the spectrum. Hindi cinema has been celebrating the idea in their isolated forms in order to create a separate space to the entities that exist around us. This separation and the further use of these ideas as an existent matter of thought in themselves have empowered the audience to think of these ideas objectively and without the distractions of the cinematic construction of the plot or the personal lives of the characters. Such thought provoking use of signifiers such as monsoon gives Hindi cinema a democratic nature that allows every viewer to think of these signifiers independently and imbue their own understanding or relation with them. For me and I hope for the supporters of Bretch and Kant, this is surely fascinating.
THE CIRCUMSTANCES THAT LED TO THE BOWLING GREEN MASSACRE
The ubiquity of snuff films in the United States since 9-11 was symptomatic of a crisis of cultural capital. For 50+ years television had an unquestioned hegemony over the US media landscape. (It’s also interesting that these 50 years roughly overlap with the United States’ hegemony in world politics.) Television was a revolutionary and traumatic force that completely shifted how Americans became Americans. The sense of community that had before been engendered through shared architectural spaces-the church, the school, the cafe, the bar-was now engendered through the medium of the televised spectacle. Every time I’ve ever heard someone tell me the story of where they were when JFK was shot, the first part of the story always details their shock and the second part always details how soon they got to a television to be able to experience it with everyone else in America. Trauma creates an incredible sense of bonding and for an increasingly socially isolated population their sense of belonging to anything larger came to be mediated through the shared relationship to the television.
This sense of togetherness was an incredible high that America never was able to recapture, though it tried desperately over and over, with diminishing results. Everything on TV that could do so with any chance of not looking ludicrous for trying presented itself as “event television.” The moment in fictional cinema when the crisis occurs went from the Vorkapich style montage of spinning newspapers to the rapid cut montage of TV news anchors saying the same thing in different accents and languages. Every retrospective documentary about professional sports I’ve ever seen has a scene where someone, frequently an academic commentator, says something like “You had to be there-it was all that was on TV.” Our greatest nation-specific festival, the Super Bowl, is as much a celebration of what we can feel when we all decide to watch the same television program at the same time as it is anything to do with football. The TV inserted itself into the bars and schools and I remember getting to college and all the kids from different parts of the country realizing in certain aspects they had shared a childhood; the TV was something between a communal text and a pet that happened to be in all our living rooms at the same time.
If the JFK assassination was the first event cementing American identity in tuning in at the same time to the same thing and then remembering that rush over and over, it was also a plateau. Awful things from the Oklahoma City bombing to Columbine happened, and while everyone still flocked to their TVs and followed the details and commentary vigorously, no strangers are cornering you in a coffee shop (as several have done to me regarding JFK) to tell you where they were when either happened. That is, until 9-11.
My story of where I was when I found out about 9-11 is pretty much the JFK narrative. Our band teacher told us vaguely something bad had happened during the last period of the day, I took the bus home, and then everyone I knew from my parents to the couple that owned the deli down the street were glued to their TV sets for what seemed like and may have actually been several weeks, watching the towers fall again and again and again…
9-11 and JFK were bookends marking the opening and closing of the US as a TV society. In 2001, the thing that would swallow TV was making its way in the world. I’m talking, of course, about the internet.
Experiencing traumatic events through the medium of the internet isn’t unifying or edifying the way that experiencing them through TV is. The US-as-TV-society looked to the news for regularly replenished mythology, not information. This isn’t an irrational response-there is an inverse correlation between the importance of an event usually reported on national television and the event’s direct relevance to the immediate experience of the viewer. It’s considered a strange and novel thing to have shown up on TV and anyone who shows up on the TV frequently begins to take on the aura of the mythic. The TV encourages this.
FROM TV SOCIETY TO THE FRACTURED HIVE MIND
The internet is too fragmented and dispersed to sustain any narrative that there is a monoculure. Tragedies can’t be nurtured into seeming significant as individual events anymore; a single spree shooting can’t take on the cultural space a Columbine did when there’s another shooting that’s reported on every day or two. Terrorism can’t sustain its narrative coherence when it becomes plainly obvious that most terrorism that happens in the US is the result of domestic white supremacists. The “us vs. them” narrative that seemed on its last sputtering legs when the best argument its proponents could muster was “the war might be wrong but you have to support the troops” has morphed into a delusional need for social cohesion that can’t be sated. The political capital and the sentimental reassurance there was a single “them” to be worried about is now patently absurd.
Oddly enough, the internet initially seemed to be doing the opposite-incredible threads written in bits and pieces by complete strangers on forums like Reddit showed remarkably similar patterns of communication leading to the notion of the hivemind. However, the hivemind was quick to factionalize and each hive soon found its reach far more limited than it had hoped. If the TV was a tool of pacification, the internet is a tool of radicalization. It frees the “community” from all the external constraints of physicality and geography; as such its only means for the “community” to maintain itself as a coherent social entity for those who rely on it extensively is to test its adherents allegiance through the devaluation and dismissal of the outside world. If they fail to escalate the shared delusions, the user must admit to themselves that they are alone. The internet, since Web 2.0, has been specifically designed to encourage reliance on itself to the exclusion of other factors.
So when Kellyanne Conway keeps talking about an obviously fake “Bowling Green Massacre” or Trump invents a nebulous something awful that didn’t happen in Sweden, it’s a tactic similar to quantitative easing-the political currency of tragedy has been depreciated to where it can no longer do the thing it had done for the last 50 years and the Trump administration is attempting to print money to make up for the lack. This isn’t the propaganda technique of the Nazis but of Nigerian Prince scams . The propaganda is stupid and obvious so as to weed out those who might be too difficult to contain within the constructed hivemind.
In the past few months the term “fake news” has come into the mainstream in a major way. A cursory definition based on its usage would have you believe it’s just an updated synonym for the old standby “propaganda,” but is this true? Yes and no. Our full assimilation into the information age has drastically transformed the way propaganda functions. Whereas in the past it was possible to withhold information and only present your preferred narrative, the current climate invites everybody to share all their information for the express purpose of cutting it all down and putting it on the same playing field. The idea is to put it in people’s heads that no information is reliable, no matter the source. Once this has occurred you have successfully discredited rigorous investigative journalism based on truth and fact. It’s suddenly no more credible than the .com ramblings of some kook in his rural Texas basement or perhaps more foreboding, the media apparatus of the state (i.e. @realDonaldTrump). This has long been a part of Vladimir Putin’s playbook where the cardinal rule is that in order to get people to believe in something, you first have to get them to believe in nothing.
To simplify (TL:DR in modern web speak);
Pre-information age propaganda = limiting access to information
Post-information age propaganda = discrediting all information (ie, fake news)
If information isn’t credible, framing and emotional narrative rise to the forefront of importance. What you say is less important than how you say it and the cognitive effect it has on the person you are speaking to. This is why Democrats lose election after election in spite of superior policy – Republicans know how to appeal to emotion while Democrats don’t think they have to play that game. We’re seeing how this plays out in reality, and it’s not pretty. The latest activity on this matter is the development of the “violence narrative” – an attempt to take the riotous activity of the anarchist group Black Bloc and associate it with the entire left-wing, liberal worldview. I will explain this soon but I want to start with a more obvious example of an expert in post-information age propaganda. I don’t mean Donald Trump (though he does qualify) but another media figure who has been compared to a more verbose version of Trump. That being cartoonist Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame.
This is the first paragraph of an article he recently wrote on climate change;
Before I start, let me say as clearly as possible that I agree with the scientific consensus on climate change. If science says something is true – according to most scientists, and consistent with the scientific method – I accept their verdict.
This is the third paragraph;
“So when I say I agree with the scientific consensus on climate change, I’m endorsing the scientific consensus for the same reason I endorsed Hillary Clinton for the first part of the election – as a strategy to protect myself. I endorse the scientific consensus on climate change to protect my career and reputation. To do otherwise would be dumb, at least in my situation.”
What have here is a massive contradiction, but one stated with authority and conviction, not unlike the way President Trump plows through his own non-truths. The first thing Scott Adams wants you to know is that he accepts climate change is a real thing. It’s the first sentence in his article on the topic, so therefore it must be really really true. A professional like Mr. Adams would not dare deny the work of science when he himself is just a cultural media figure. Therefore it should come as a shock when two paragraphs later he states that the only reason he accepts the science on climate change is to protect his reputation. In other words he is saying that he doesn’t accept the scientific consensus on climate change but he wants to confuse the reader into thinking he does so that he has more credibility. He’s giving you the runaround, like the narcissist he strives to be.
If we want to take Adams at his word in that he cares about his reputation and career (and this seems reasonable given that narcissists usually do care about this stuff) I’d posit that he has an anti-climate change agenda. Despite his claims, that’s more beneficial to him personally and professionally at this point seeing he’s become a bit of a right wing media darling in a similar vein as Mike Rowe. As the article continues Adams goes to great lengths to disguise himself as being balanced, saying hyperbolic things like “this is the only place you’ll see both sides of the issue!” That isn’t to say he doesn’t make good or interesting points but that’s always been the hallmark of good propaganda, no matter what era it comes from. It always knows just where and when to sprinkle in just enough truth to lend itself credibility.
On surface level Adams seems to be writing about the difficulty in figuring out the truth behind climate change. In the era of fake news however only suckers read things surface level. Look not at content or facts but framing and intent. Then you might see that this piece is designed not to bring people closer to truthful concepts but rather to fan the flames of debate in order to increase his popularity with his new niche audience. He is playing into the recent right wing promotion of information chaos, which in turn helps to discredit the order and limits imposed by science (liberally biased, naturally). This helps push the right’s anti-climate change agenda which they need in order to pull back all those pesky regulations that prevent enterprising American capitalists from exploiting the environment for profit er… um… I mean creating bountiful high paying jobs for the working class.
When analyzing fake news what one says often has less importance than when they say it – timing is everything. Just like you never get a second chance at a first impression, the first statement one makes tends to be the most revealing. Adams first statement was that he accepted climate change, though he carefully omitted his reasons for this until later. He dropped in a very mainstream point of view to set the frame that he was a credible guy. Compare this tactic to one used in numerous conservative responses to the recent punching of Richard Spencer on the day of Trump’s inauguration. This article by John Nolte of conservative news blog “Daily Wire” is a perfect example, though interestingly it’s a little bit trickier than what you get from a so called “master persuader” like Scott Adams. There’s some build up, starting with the first paragraph;
“Okay, fine, somewhere in my Twitter stream you will find a joke about my not being too terribly upset over this creep Richard Spencer getting sucker-punched on TV last week. My tweet was a joke, though, and I am clearly on record, time and time again, speaking out against violence and the encouraging/excusing of violence. Also, I am not The New York Times.”
Nolte is humanizing himself by letting us all know that yeah, he felt none too bad to see physical violence enacted against the self proclaimed leader of the “alt-right” (which is now synonymous with white supremacy). He goes as far as to call the guy a creep, just to make sure we all know that Mr. Nolte in no way approves of the viewpoints of Mr. Spencer. He also clarifies the he’s very much anti-violence in any way, shape or form (he was just joking, after all!), thus further laying down the frame that he’s a decent guy with good values. What follows is an overly elaborate and hypothetical construction of Spencer as an actual Nazi. Hypothetical because in reality Nolte wants to enforce the notion that really the guy is just an unpleasant kook and nowhere on the level of actual Hitler. This is down to downplay the danger people like Spencer represent to society and in particular minorities. This is summed up in his fourth “paragraph” (just one sentence, for potency I guess);
“For argument’s sake, I am ready to stipulate that Richard Spencer is one sick and twisted piece of racist garbage.”
In his next “paragraph” (again, one sentence) he drops the true bombshell, already hinted at in paragraph one;
“Nevertheless, in its attempt to normalize and excuse and rationalize any kind of political violence against anyone, even a Nazi, The New York Times is more a Nazi than Spencer.”
Though not as direct as Adams, the tactic Nolte uses is essentially the same. Adams emphatically stated that he believed in climate change but then quickly made that belief subordinate to another point about the fuzziness of truth and unreliability of science. Nolte emphatically states that he despises Spencer and goes as far to paint a picture of him as an honest to god Nazi before revealing his true target – the NYTimes and by proxy, the liberal left. From one of the final paragraphs in his piece;
“This push for and encouragement and normalizing of violence among the left and our national media, is no joke. It’s been going on for years, in Ferguson, in Baltimore, from the Obama White House, and within the institutional left.”
Let’s overlook the fact that a death from a purely ideological left wing terrorist attack hasn’t occurred on American soil since 1981. During that same time period since then there have been numerous deaths associated with domestic right wing terrorism in multiple attacks. That’s merely a side point to the fact that right-wing motivated violence is more likely to be state sponsored than left-wing violence which tends to come in the form of civil disobedience that generally spares harming individuals in favor of property destruction. This paradigm works very well for the right because state sponsored violence is not only legal but far more brutal and effective than anything pesky civil disobedience can muster up. The military and police have wide latitude to do what they want and not face legal repercussions, for better or worse (some may argue they need that latitude to perform a tough thankless job, but that’s another topic).
State sponsored violence however doesn’t have to come from an organized and sanctioned group. It can also be self-defense, and thus legal (ie Trayvon Martin). This point is reinforced by the creepy way Nolte’s article ends;
“Buy guns, America. You need to be able to defend yourselves and your loved ones.”
So just like Adams wrote an article denouncing climate change disguised as an article about the fuzzy nature of truth, Nolte has written an article essentially endorsing violence disguised as an article about how the left should be villainized because they endorse violence. Left is right. Up is down, something something 1984. It’s all very confusing and intellectually draining to try and follow. What’s not confusing is how Nolte comes very close to advocating the murder of political opponents by planting the seed in people’s minds that if you don’t kill the leftist first than the leftist might… um, sucker punch you in the face.
What we have seen happen here is an example of the right wing media writing about political violence in a way that falsely frames it as purely a leftist phenomenon. Were this just some rambling kook on a right wing dumping ground then this wouldn’t be much of a problem but sadly these things don’t stay so neatly contained. The extensive media coverage of the riots at UC Berkeley in response to a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos handed the right wing media a golden opportunity for a more concentrated effort to paint the left as violent and threatening and possibly even something worth countering with violent force of your own, if necessary. This narrative has been created and framed independently of the facts, which in the case of both Berkeley and the Spencer punching still seem rather fuzzy, lost in the tides of information and “fake news”.
There is no doubt that violence is occurring in America in 2017 but who is really being harmed? Rather than accept right wing narratives at surface level, people need to be asking deeper questions. Is the broken window at Wells Fargo bank in downtown Berkeley really more egregious than the thousands of sick and disabled people who could die with the repeal of the ACA? Is Spencer taking a sucker punch more disconcerting than the fear minorities live in thanks to the spread of his ideas? To me the answers here are obvious but perhaps the kind of violence I’m talking about is too esoteric to play well on CNN. On a logical level I think most of us know where the most harm is being committed but thanks to their expertise at controlling narratives, the right wing has put the emotional view front and center and are using it for political gain. Luckily enough their act is not a hard one to replicate, and the facts being on your side makes for a more definitive tie breaker than a Mike Pence trip to the Senate. It’s time the left learned how to beat the Breitbart’s and Daily Wire’s of the world at their own game.
A similar question makes itself present in almost all junctures and lines of human questioning and refuses to come to neat resolution. This is the recursion problem, the point at which a dam must be artificially erected in order to continue the act of rationalist reasoning. It has many names with slightly different connotations that nevertheless seem more fraternally tied than differentiated-the a priori assumption, the axiom, the absence necessarily implied when Derrida discusses supplementes, and in more specific contexts, both the Big Bang and God. None can be justified except by the negative consequences and loss of forward direction that would come with their not being presumed. We’d lose geometry and a bunch of other stuff.
It seems like a safe initial presumption, given the small sliver of the totality of existence any of us is allowed to live in, the further limitation of our reliance on our senses within the context of this limited sliver and the limitations of comprehension and our own singular consciousness in relation to the processed data of these senses, to put any presumptions to absolute knowledge of metaphysical laws by human beings on permanent probation status. The implied problem in any text with phrases like “Let us presume (x).” There’s a hole behind the presumption, it’s always been there. We can’t really know what we’re missing, that’s the exclusive property and knowledge of the hole, and in order for human society and thought to progress we kinda have to treat it like an outstretched power cord in a cluttered apartment we have to be careful not to trip over.
This problem creates the more practical problem of leaving a certain uncomfortable but unavoidable looseness in the classic questions “How ought I live?”, “What’s right?” and related questions. On the final level, once the logistics and practicalities are considered, or sometimes before they can be considered with any seriousness, this question of when the recursive series of “why that?”‘s ends comes up and can’t be resolved except by ignoring it or cheating; the ultimate Kobayashi Maru, the Gordian Knot that can’t stop unspooling rope on either side, a series of colorful handkerchiefs tied together pulled from a top hat with no bottom. What’s called faith or confidence insists it must come into play; the world and our selves refuse to change without us stepping out of the room momentarily lest we actually see either naked. No one who ever claimed to have peered inside eternity’s trench coat has ever seemed happier for having seen the bared and dangling thing therein.
For the honest person of a severe rational character this can loop around back to a rhetoric of “science” that ends up as circular and self-justifying as the vocabulary set it replaced; that can’t answer the finer questions of culture with any more precision than an allan wrench can drive in a philips head screw. Our tools cry out more and more to us for attention in the manner of children; they desire constant assurances we love them and need them more than they especially care or are equipped for fixing the pressing problems of capitalism’s increasing irrelevance or climate change.
The easiest way to psychologically resolve the deadlock and make way to action, meaningful or meaningless, is in the shape of the oppositional identity.
The oppositional identity works a bit like the archetypal silent comedy mirror routine.
Each side of the mirror keeps making halting gestures, almost recognizing itself but wanting to be sure that the thing on the other side isn’t itself, defining it’s self and it’s course of action in the negative space of the other. Normative identity in the US is very much built around what one doesn’t do, for the reason the (insert “undesirable” element) does whatever this is and usually little other reason. Performative differance. The moments of recognition, the common ground so often sought by ecumenical organizations religious and secular, is in fact the source of antagonism and anxiety and when the energy to antagonize and worry dissipates, the source of peculiar absurdities.
Lacan claimed that the thing the patient actually wants when entering the analyst’s office is a way to hold onto their symptoms, not to get better. While Freud’s thoughts and theoretical work has been applied to group psychological contexts more frequently and substantially, it seems this observation could be overlaid on the current US scene and yield insight.
When the far left wants to defend the far right racists currently “occupying” federal land in Oregon on the grounds that action taken against the Bundy crowd would bode poorly for the left come…the revolution? OWS mach 2? I’m not entirely sure? Possibly nothing? I can only presume such a line of reasoning arises from the shared awkward flirtation with the notion of revolution on both sides, the bared fantasies of overthrow that have their uncomfortable and not just slightly masturbatory existence outside the manufactured structures of ideology, the empty space in the attic that’s still an integral part of the house. The far right wants to protect the abstract fantasy of “revolution” the way many teenage girls would likely cry if Justin Bieber ever got married.
What do these people stockpiling guns want them for if they don’t want to shoot someone? What common ground is desirable with what amount to domestic brownshirts? As a psychological phenomena, fascism is built around the absence of a substantial structure to temper pure oppositional identity; the idea of “decentralized” or “distributed” fascism, what would have sounded like an obvious oxymoron not that long ago, seems very much a possibility, maybe even a reality. The necessary logistics have shifted. As Stanley wrote a couple months ago:
Even though Donald Trump has not yet successfully built up a fascist mass movement, he has something Hitler and Franco didn’t, a mass media based on 24/7 cable news and the Internet. Germany, Spain and Italy in the 1930s had well-developed civil societies, educated populations, and conservative family structures, a traditional culture in touch with history the United States in 2015 doesn’t. An Italian or German in 1930 could turn off the radio. Americans in 2015 always have their smart phones, or their computers. Few Americans have any space at all outside of the corporations and the mainstream media. Ironically, however, it also makes the charismatic fascist demagogue unnecessary.
The thrust of this society, the guiding principle that outstrips the actuality of the large corporations and federal or state governments, is the belief that it’s an innate human right, for some humans anyway, to collect rent on other humans’ labor. There’s been a stewing slaveholder’s revolt in this country that has flared up repeatedly since its initial salvo in 1861. Human slavery of course has no reasonable justification that stands up to any logical scrutiny based in any consistent ethics; at the same time more literature has probably been produced justifying it in one way or another than on any other human question.
If the justification for this eventually has to come to its stark nakedness, public masturbatory displays, open carries, gloppy angry sentimental mush like all nationalism, to expect reason from a class purposely set out to avoid it lest they give up their privileges, we should expect some ugly shit to go down.
So long as this belief exists as folk religion, as the unspoken foundation of peoples’ dreams and the foundation of the wealthy who exist as carrots falsely promising the actualization of this dream to those beneath them, there will be flare ups. We should be actively trying to figure out what to do to curb and seize the massive private stockpile of arms in this country.
There are regional variations. Styles you might call them; vernaculars. I’m talking of course about how people watch television.
Not what they watch, but how they watch. The certain carriage of the body on the sofa or around the confines of the space; the degree and volume of commentary provided. In all cases what the TV provides is a pivot point of intimacy; I remember many passing acquaintances long since passed, passed at least from my purview, and I remember them most clearly in how they would watch TV when company was over.
I had a roommate. I knew little of her past. Walking in I would find her, most nights, watching movies about wronged women dating trashy losers and, with the help of quirky friends, eventually ditching the loser and frequently raising a child with the implied help of the community. Maybe there was more to these movies and I merely walked in at the right five minutes on each separate occasion. It seems like such a specific set of genre parameters. In one particular film three women, two of whom I recognized as Keri Russell and Cheryl Hines, both refined women from the northeast, speaking to each other in something absurdly…southern? can I even call the accent southern? is there a poverty minstrel inverse to the mid-Atlantic accent, an inflection not of any particular region but that simply denotes generic (archetypal?) hillbilly as seen from the outside? a dialect that denotes a town with a prominently positioned Waffle House…in any instance it was somewhat embarrassing to watch. Hines is married into the Kennedy family. Surely actual poor white people with exaggerated accents could’ve been procured, but that’s not the point is it? The point is that the actors weren’t actually poor, the actors didn’t actually speak like that, but they were deigning to speak like that. The process by which the broad commercial cinema/TV “humanizes” is a process of condescension but a process of condescension that in certain quarters is desired.
And so it would seem, though technically I couldn’t “intrude” in the living room that was as much my living area as hers, that I was bursting a bubble. To walk in towards the end of a movie someone is very intent on watching feels like the inverse of accidentally walking in on someone jerking off; like that Philip K. Dick novel where in the future your legal responsibility if you hit someone with your car is to back up to make sure they’re dead instead of calling an ambulance, so the standard when you walk in on someone intently fixated on a maudlin film, though the vibe can be similar to walking in on someone stroking it, the…uh…, the social expectation is that you don’t disturb them and finish. I took a seat on the couch and played with the cats. As the film that day reached its denouement, as Keri Russell said proudly from the hospital bed “Ahh kin raise this chile wit’out yew Earl! Yer nair gone know thee-is bayy-bee!!” and the muzak swelled as the bearded, presumably trashy baby daddy’s voice was drowned out and the camera pulled away from the action, her face took on a look of indecent gratification.
The woman in the film is supposed to be all women the same way the first rule of being a copyright/patent attorney is “phrase anything as vaguely as possible.” The rights to “water” are more valuable than the rights to “sugar water” and so on. To be “humanized” is not the opposite of being archetypal; the two things work in a continuum that may be a dialectic. Much of what’s recognized as good or bad in the movies by the viewer is not dissimilar to what they’re looking for in pornography; to see themselves without squinting too hard, to see their antagonisms worked out in the most gratifying possible terms. The mind will more than meet the movies half-way and in fact the broadness that characterizes popular cinema suggests that the mind wants to meet the cinematic fantasy half-way. It’s frequently suggested that people don’t watch TV or films very closely. And it’s rarely discussed what occupies that territory between the eye’s innatention and the image, or what its functional purpose might be.
So what does this all have to do with the rape and sexual assault accusations leveled by Stoya and others at porn performer James Deen?
As for the accusations and accounts, they seem numerous enough to seem very credible and hopefully some sort of legal action is taken. I should preface before the rest of this piece that it’s a piece about the relationship between the actual, archetypal and news coverage, not a piece directly about the James Deen scandal.
The most fascinating element of the James Deen phenomena is that before the scandal he was hyped in many articles as either a feminist or the gateway drug for women into watching porn. Deen himself never actually called himself a feminist and what were called, until the scandal, “boy-next-door good looks” seem to correspond heavily toward his looking non-threateningly white and middle class as opposed to the largely “ethnic” qualities of other male porn performers. This is not my original observation; many articles have been published since the scandal broke highlighting the irony of the “feminist” image in contrast to the alleged behavior that went on behind the scenes and was the frame of Stoya’s tweet that initiated the controversy.
What’s fascinating in this is not the irony/hypocrisy. Irony and hypocrisy are rarely interesting. What’s fascinating is how a mid-sized industry could be created out of what mostly amounted to physiognomy. Deen could project certain qualities without trying to. His own personal communications with the larger world amounted to a blog mostly talking about women’s buttholes and a video blog where he ate things. That all sounds much more frat than feminist. But his face didn’t look frat and he ended up around the right people to snowball his way into an unusual marketing niche.
At the same time, many of the articles surrounding the controversy have centered around the archetype of the “male feminist”. The “male feminist”, like the “bro”, or “the hipster”, or most other broad cultural categories is a media creation looking for a model specimen to take shape. Like the meme, these archetypal identities of the present work on a new physiognomy, a picture of a face that looks so much like an implied backstory that the parameters of this archetype are explored in minute variations that can be nearly endless if the picture goes viral.
The place of the celebrity is fleeting because the celebrity- especially the celebrity whose celebrity seems to be self-sustaining as such-the famous-for-being-famous-are in fact endlessly auditioning and reclaiming the place of some far off distant archetype that enough people want to exist; a fog of rumor surrounds the greats to protect them from growing too tangible to be projected onto; a cottage industry of poorly researched or outright fictional secondary literature on Marilyn Monroe, on the Kennedys, on James Dean with an “a” exists to preserve the primary cultural function they serve as icons; somewhere there existed a desire for a “male feminist” porn actor, and now there exists a temporary pop-up market for articles on how the people who perhaps wrote the earlier articles creating the archetype of “the male feminist” to say how their creation has betrayed them in the form of Deen’s alleged sexual assaults.
But why was the image created in the first place?
The celebrity exists to be projected upon, chewed up and spit out by the culture at large. They’re the changing forms of identities embraced and eventually rejected with the aging of the wearer. When children first start to grow up they tend to make a big deal about disliking the music or other products they consumed; we distance ourselves from our former selves by distancing ourselves from the items we identified with at the time.
Part of the “correct” or normative performance of every job from server to parent is to allow the client or customer more easily see the laborer as part of a continuous mass that doesn’t have jagged edges or differentiation; to approach a platonic uniform ideal of what constitutes their role in society. Romantic fantasies about the idealized “perfect” servant pop up all over the place from advertising imagery to TV sitcoms and dramas to literature to films like The Budapest Hotel; the servant who entirely embodies their role is held up as a figure of admiration, always positioned, of course, in the past. This goes back to the early 20th century craze for sheet music for songs about garishly sentimentalized dead or absent mothers, continues through to the Jeeves’s and stretches on to the verbally demeaned female or gay male secretary archetype.
The entertainer exists for the sake of society; to maintain the idealized hope of the perfect server or the perfect self. There’s a case study that opens James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. He describes a society where the jester was infrequnetly allowed to be the provisional king ,but only for five days. He would have access to all the king’s provisions, all the king’s servants, all the king’s quarters, and all the king’s concubines. At the end of five days, the jester would be killed.
Frazer doesn’t mention whether the larger population in this society would fantasize about attaining this outcome or take it as a cautionary example.
Journalistic articles are heavily schematic; of all the prose styles they’re the closest analogue to pop music. They use a very simple rhythmic pattern aggressively to get into your ear above all other considerations in a manner perhaps only surpassed by the prose advertisement, which in the print magazine works as the refrain between the verses of the supposed primary content. Sentimental and nostalgic reflections are shot back on its history; it gives grand retrospectives and revues of its greatest hits and it trains you how to passively consume it from about the first time you’re dragged out in public in a stroller. A news story catches and you hear bits of it every time you go to the supermarket or the drug store. It can’t be helped.
This tells you a bit, though not much more than the blanket statement that the majority of the songs on the radio work on a verse-chorus-verse structure. Other schematics are at play that change in their texture and attack over time much as the pop sound of today feels different than 40s big band sounds did.
The major difference that marks contemporary opinion pieces’ more specific coordinates and positioning in the circle jerk is the gerrymandering of where the locus of power lies and therefore the target our collective amorphous misgivings ought to be directed toward on any given day. Like cell phone contracts, a lot of crap is packaged together in ways it doesn’t need to be but in a manner meant to confuse the reader. The “ideological purity” of certain political stances is questioned for what are likely opportunistic reasons. Many of the misgivings about the practical applications of identity politics are put to these ideological “purity tests” in order to ironically obscure the valid part of the complaint.
When an article is shared on social media it tends to be simply as a triangulation of an earlier opinion. Often times the person sharing has not read the article. The news exists in large part at present as an external signifier of self; its a way of outsourcing the speaking of the mind so it appears our personal gripes are legitimized by the presence of an article the way that things become “real” for their having been presented on TV and not vice versa.
Part of this is media overload; there’s so much stuff out there. In the spirit of that great question “Is the chicken just an egg’s way of making more eggs?”, I must ask if the event itself and the specifics are simply now the rough draft for the eventual summary; I must ask whether the great novels will reach their truest purest form as Cliff’s Notes, whether the Cliff’s Notes will eventually be eclipsed by quick introductions and meta-meta-highlight reels, the “best” and “important” parts of things meant to represent the “best” and “important” parts of what were considered the “best” and “important” milestones of human culture? What was in an earlier age presumed to be the actual thing’s claims toward being the actual thing seem more and more tinged with the whiny taste of sour grapes. Who has the time to keep their ear to ground AND hold a job? No one whose job isn’t specifically keeping their ear to the ground. To be informed at this stage in history is not to be close to what’s happening but to be exceptionally fluent in spotting tells in the sleight of hand of summaries. We’ve all realized history is cobbled together from the surviving documents, not the events. This has always been true. Perhaps nothing more than a winking gentleman’s agreement sustained the perceived primacy of the event until now.
The journalist is not put in a position of having much or any particular easy recourse to self-respect at this point; the wages are low, the institutions hiring are almost all primarily expecting a person who can write PR bullshit. Whatever ridiculous claims to objectivity or public service…well, the claim of “public service” in an employment context at this point is essentially an excuse to pay people less than they’re worth. “But what you’re doing is important!” means about as much in this economy as if they put a shiny sticker shaped like a star on your paychecks.
The position of the young or old journalist at present would seem to be, especially on the most trafficked sites, the creation not of guided propaganda as may have been the case in an earlier time period, but simply the scouting out of persons already possessed of the desired worldview of the political body needing propaganda. The journalists themselves might still have silly pipe dreams of objectivity but the people with the money have no such concerns. There’s a large enough labor surplus at the moment where the lines between the serious journalism ideals of the 20th century and the internet induced Frankenstein of public relations and mild reporting are pretty much foregone conclusions; when a company puts at least the doublespeak of “innovation” or that they’re “looking for strong original minds”, it’s a formality and shouldn’t be taken any more seriously than such invocations would be if they were spotted in a dating profile.
Only the possibilities of panic or novelty can imbue the news with any sort of claim to our attention; while the pressure to be “informed” still exists, the suspicion that most of what goes on in the papers doesn’t actually have much bearing on our lives, for reasons of the pettiness of the content or simply the recognition that most of the population is firmly disempowered to make meaningful political change until the current oligarchy is collapsed. The current media giants mostly work to confuse and disenfranchise. They know that the popular narrative of the present is going to involve finger pointing and the fingers are all waving around anything and everything like the profession caught an advanced case of Parkinsons. Thomas Pynchon’s 3rd proverb for paranoids: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”
People are pissed off. That’s easy enough to see. So the cases being made on sites like Salon, Slate and so on are revolving more and more around how define the demographic to go after when the pitchforks come out. Tellingly this demographic seems to be gerrymandered in these articles increasingly to avoid pointing out the simple and nearly universal target: the rich. The bankers. Their collaborators. The people who fucked shit up and keep fucking us.
Am I saying that the patriarchy hasn’t done awful shit? No. Am I saying that white people haven’t done awful shit? No. But any time that these lines are invoked without also calling out the heads of the large banks, the corporate heads, the administrators and middle men, the bought off legislators and careerists who’ve perpetuated the current corporate seizure of sovereignty in this country, I’m calling bullshit. We can advance the positions of women and the general disenfranchised in this country without becoming collaborators with the reactionary bourgeois.
I’d make some appeal to the better nature of these columnists here but I have little faith in them or that they’re reading this, so I’ll make an appeal to the better nature of the reader-don’t be timid about calling bullshit when there’s bullshit in the offing.
Night after night they sat in restless repose, watching beer commercial after beer commercial and car commercial after car commercial, not necessarily in that order, ten and thirty feet respectively from where a 24-pack of clearance-sale Budweiser resided in an ice box and from where a Cavalier resided in a carport, doors and skirts rusted out courtesy of design flaws and thirty years of being parked in that pointless structure. Some commercials beckoned them to rise while others intimidated them to remain in repose, or coaxed them deeper into their slouched reclination with sweet songs and elegant whispers. All the commercials served the same ends, of that they were certain, but in time they grew less certain and forgot entirely what the ends themselves were, only that all of the commercials were serving those ends. Then they became uncertain as to whether the ends were their allies or their enemies.
When they did rise, it was on command, at the beckoning of the television. The programming congealed into a continuous shrift of the intellect, but It was welcome, they’d said, We had the right to turn our brains off after a hard day of work, they’d said. There would sometimes be stirring programming snuck in-between the commercials: a noted athlete on a political tirade, or an allegory snuck past the censors in artful fiction, or a program that found humor in social discord, or a protest on the news. On rare occasions, the protest on the news would sometimes cease to be narrated and for but a moment, in the wild chorus of voices heard between the end of a news reader’s spiel and the first of the next commercials, some truth they knew to be incontrovertibly true would be heard and, just as quickly, washed away by a commercial for a 39-gem luxury watch, with all the finest movements and impeccable timing provided for by the large number of gems incorporated. They were not watchmakers and so did not understand why the gems made for such impeccable timing and movements, but the glints of light on them and the gold that housed them, the silver and gilded gears that surrounded them, made them salivate for water and their minds could not shake them of this association, even as they failed to comprehend it superficially.
Their most prominent source for the time, the display upon the cable box, glowed proudly with the hour.
The children, as expected, proved more responsible than the adults. Sometime toward twelve, after giggling their way through the Tonight monologue with hands clamped over their mouths, they would pull blankets over the unconscious adults up to their shoulders, and then slink quietly away to their beds. The adults would wake in the mornings, mouths dry with the pungent vapors of hops and ethanol, heads foggy with a night’s dreams of fantastic products inserted and infomercial scenarios throughout. Then, as expected, the children proved more wily than the adults, soon catching on to this trend and selectively turning to stations before they went to bed, ones which would be advertising items of interest to the children toward the morning and the more-remembered portion of the dreams in the adults’ slumber.
Though the adults disregarded any stray thoughts they had of obvious children’s toys, an affinity for the more technological of wonders permeated through, and soon the rusty Cavalier was outfitted with a GPS and a satellite radio, the Budweiser came to be housed in a refrigerator with a screen in the door that you could look up recipes on and order groceries through. Soon the cathode ray tube television that occupied the place in the family room that a throne occupies in a throne room came to be usurped by a smart t.v., the sort that records shows for you and goes on the internet and can use your cell phone as a remote control, slipped surreptitiously onto the wall with its scandalously-small footprint. With all of these changes the intellectual capital of the children rose, and in response to the customary cries of the adults of illiteracy with the new technology they would come and make the technology do what the adults could not make the technology do, and would increasingly chastise those of majority age for adopting the newest technologies and then still remaining the loyal base of media consistently informing them of their own powerlessness and lack of worth. They were convinced of their immobility even as the GPS in their car beckoned to take them on a three-state tour in the space of two hours.
The children came together in frequent meetings to discuss these developments, wondering with one another whether to smash all of the devices as they’d once considered doing with the television, or to continue attempting to usurp the influences upon their progenitors with positive ones. In the end, as the children became adults themselves, it was decided that the existing adults’ ignorant tendency to vote, validating fixed elections, would be permitted until the day the children had come to replace the fixed elections with true ones. They pushed the adults to exercise this civic tic through voting for American Idol contestants and new M&M colors, tried with futility to compel them to at least vote Democrat or third-party if they had to vote at all. When the children were still too young to seize upon the day for actions of their own, Election Day would be occupied by a ceremonial banging of their heads against one another. They began to understand and appreciate why the athletes did it, and soon ascribed a cultural warrior status to those who engaged in university sports for no immediate reward and at great risk to themselves. They were personally indifferent on the matter, but doing so pushed the adults from their fascination with gladiatorial athletics: the young had seized, had ruined it for them by injecting their politics into the adults’ sports. They had learned the trick when adults once dissuaded them from an interest in anime by pretending to think anime was cool too. With the television occupied all day Saturday and Sunday with college and professional sports, the adults found themselves uncertain what to do.
They took the three-state tour their car’s GPS had promised. They met people of the sort they never would have met before. They went on the internet and argued futilely and made friends with people who thought differently. They grew as individuals under the guide of their children and their own usurping technologies, the machinations that had pushed them down, from their careers and any belief in their own triumph, into their repose. The children finally went to them after this development, hoping their conversation to end with the return of the adults into the intelligentsia.
“Fathers and mothers, now have you found the source of your restlessness? Now have you found why your repose has been so uneasy all of this time?”
“We have. And we miss the targeted advertising. We hate shopping, but love buying. We miss the gladiatorial combat. We hate pain, but love seeing it inflicted. We miss social warfare. We love to be respected, but hate respecting others. We miss class warfare. We hate being poor, but love being richer than others. We wish we had never produced the lot of you, for we did not need to be awakened, or reminded of the forces which move against us. We knew these things once and we discarded them willingly, and had we known you would wrest us from our slumber we would have discarded your lot willingly as well.”
The children mulled this revelation over for a brief time, before deciding wordlessly, with glances amongst them, that the adults’ time was running out anyhow and as their successors knew now to shift from re-education to marginalization. Such it was that they came to sit the adults back before the televisions, disabling the “smart” functions that allowed them to convene with the outside world and urging them again to take in the algorithmically-manicured advertising as the t.v. had before beckoned them to do.
In the end, it was decided that the adults would be tolerated but disregarded.
Yet another think piece was added to the pile of literature considering trigger warnings on Salon a couple days ago. This piece begat yet another think piece in the form of this thing you’re reading. Trigger warning: this is a broad meta-commentary.
The piece, “My Trigger Warning Disaster”, details the attempts by a professor, Rani Neutill, to teach a class on the history of sexuality in the cinema only to be constantly interrupted by offended students and boxed into trigger-warning all of her lesson plans and generally just having an awful time teaching the course. She doesn’t mention what college this was at though the bit at the end saying she lives in Cambridge, Mass gives some idea of possible institutions. The essay also gives a helpful informal bibliography of work on the culture of trigger warnings.
The phenomena of trigger warnings seems intimately intertwined with the entrance into college of the first generations to have grown up with the contemporary internet as a social given. That trigger warnings would be the manifestation of this is somewhat surprising given that the internet’s existence in its current form gave rise to a generation of people who saw the most heinous types of pornography and possibly even snuff films by the time they were 18. I dunno. Maybe I was just around weirdos and perverts. For a good couple years though it seemed like the fuel the internet ran on was videos or photos of people eating feces or injuring themselves. After all that, trigger warnings would seem to have become totally redundant.
I brought this up to Stan. Stan was in his 30s when all this was going on and actually worked for a website trying to monetize shock content. He made a good point. “I think most people are desensitized but I think that comes with its mirror image, hypersensitivity. Being desensitized takes any sense of what’s right and wrong away. So you start rebuilding it in the most ham-handed way.”
So this is blow back. We had our decade and a half of simulacural hedonism and indulgence of the id, now we enter the phase of push back. Now that the problem of providing plenty has been decisively conquered on the media front the privilege to be fought over now becomes the ability to control the overwhelming influx. The period in which the internet was the wild west has decisively ended and the major companies of the present are no longer the ones offering infinite options but the ones that can intelligently curate.
Early conversational scares about the potentials of the internet would frequently revolve around the similarities between the TV that watches you in Orwell’s 1984 and the then still novel notion that a website or your e-mail could tailor advertisements to you. These scares never gained much traction because this mechanism is probably what was desired. One of the deliverances most promised in advertising narratives is the deliverance from having to choose; the US population’s desire to be seduced into consumer monogamy has been explored surprisingly little in film and literature. I would often hear complaints from people not especially versed in political or media theory “Why isn’t there a single objective source where I can just get THE news??” These would oddly enough be the sort of people who would say how proud they were that the US is more free than China.
I’ve been collecting books speculatively looking forward at what the internet might turn out to be or become from before 1995 for a larger project. In the opening essay of 1994’s Hyper/Text/Theory (Johns Hopkins, ed. Landow), a collection of essays examining hypertext as a set of literary theory problems, the issue of the “readerless text” comes up. The readerless text is, put simply, a text so vast that no one person could conceivably have read the entirety of it and “mastered” it in the traditional sense. From pg. 34:
“Critics can never read all the text and then represent themselves as masters of the text as do critics in print text. True, one can never fully exhaust or master a particular printed text, to be sure, but one can accurately claim to have read all through it or even to have read it so many times as to claim credibly to know it well. Large hypertexts and cybertexts simply offer too many lexias for critics ever to read. Quantity removes mastery and authority, for one can only sample, not master, a text.”
The language employed here is interesting for more reasons than writer George Landow could’ve foreseen consciously in 1994, though that is why I collect books like this. Insofar as the quantity of data, information and experiences available through the internet are for practical intents and purposes unlimited, the conscious creation of the self reverses its’ trajectory; earlier man actively created himself through active engagement and exploration of the world of objects; things were hard to find and worldliness was a commodity in short supply; a person, and such a person who resided near my apartment recently died and remarks were made to this effect, could become a regional legend in their own time simply for having accumulated records or books in a certain quantity. To an extent, Henry Thoreau followed this model.
This now seems ridiculous. For the cost of a generic smartphone and proximity to some form of wi-fi I can access much of what remains of the past couple thousand years of human culture at no cost if I’m willing to be only slightly clever and motivated and loose in my conception of what’s legal. Within the US, while the degree of access is highly variable and the digital divide is real, the access is there and the accumulation of objects is at this point a ghost dance for the aesthetic joys of conspicuous consumption past. The well-defined self is now defined not by the breadth of its activity but by its aggression in going on the defensive. While the posture of sophistication has always to some degree been defined by negative consumption (“I’d never watch a thing like that!”), the definition of self in the face of media plenty is the inverse of Thorstein Veblen’s famous “conspicuous consumption” of the leisure class-conspicuous negative-consumption.
Because the text cannot be mastered and considered in the positive it must be rejected piecemeal; it refuses to surrender to our speculations, mine obviously included, and as such we go on the attack with such frequency that for those who get their news on the internet, it defines the news cycle. We’re flooded with a volume of content on a single usually not very interesting subject (see: Kenneth Goldsmith poetry conference controversy) that most complaints by those not writing op-eds, those without a vested interest in the “controversy” seeming legitimate, amount to “why does everyone give a shit about this and why do they keep giving a shit about it all over my Facebook feed?”
The nostalgia in the trigger warning, the element by which it transcends its well intentioned origins and grows into its own beast, comes from its context within the assaultive media environment of the present. The screen is an invading race and we are negotiating our peaceful coexistence with it as it encroaches on our territory whether we want it to or not. The nostalgia that popular projections onto the trigger warning almost deterministically pushed it into embodying were the space of plausible deniability in ones’ ignorance, the space that was once called innocence.
A turf war is being fought with the screen, but the screen can’t feel or bleed; we shoot rounds off into the darkness and settle for collateral damage.