Tag Archives: Semiotic Democracy

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?

The Space of Not-Knowing: The Internet and Economies of Information

The present is a time of overwhelming access to information. Much of it is contradictory, vague or seemingly meaningless. Far more facts than can ever be processed are available in already digested forms.

Discussions of early Judaism frequently point out the novelty of a community based around a book instead of a geographic proximity. The text translated itself communally over and over, spiraling outward, as the populations themselves drifted into the decentralized pockets of the diaspora. In the fossil record of documents the earliest probable ancestor to the internet is The Talmud.

The internet, like The Talmud, positions the footnote as a corridor in a labyrinth with the invisible everything/nothing of truth (the artist formerly known as God) at its center. It’s the manifestation of emanationism as the spiraling outward as text. The text is meant to beget more text; it orders the universe in footnotes meant to beget more footnotes. Endless commentaries upon commentaries. This is what a Gawker or Cracked does, they’re just not given as much time to write.

This trend continues historically in the Medieval manuscripts’ infamous marginalia. The marginalia’s content is similar to modern social media posts; lots of raucous images of God-only-knows-what and complaints directed toward a possible non-audience that, in some cases, have not been read until now. Some examples:

“New parchment, bad ink. I say nothing more.”

“I am very cold.”

The marginalia exists as the Twitter of the incunabula; the workers’ invisible griping before meme generators and the copy-paste tools’ most direct descendent, the printing press. The printing press and the ability to make relatively cheap and accurate reproductions of photographs in the 20th century led back to the offspring of the medieval marginalia and The Talmuds’ stylistic tendencies while not entirely resembling either.

The printed book, of course, acts as a disciplinary containment facility for information. The editor is “cuts down”, “slashes”, “trims”. The unedited manuscript is undisciplined, wild, free. It resists definition. Like the medieval myth of the unicorn, it runs about unable to be tamed except by a virgin. It is then promptly killed by the hunters of “meaning” and “definitive interpretation.”

The unicorn, in the 1600s, was frequently seen as a translation of the Christ myth.




The fairly recent obsession with attribution and citation exemplified at its most quantitative extreme in academic style guides is not an historical given, and has or has not been enforced for various reasons throughout history.

The early Hasidic Jewish rabbis, anticipating and joyously embracing what Roland Barthes would later call “The Death of the Author”, paid little attention to issues of attribution; they wished themselves to be transmigrated into the anonymous solidarity of folk tales. Books compiling their tales decades after the fact are filled with cautions in their academic prefaces that original sourcing in many cases can’t be found, that stories and saying in “primary” sources will be frequently attributed to multiple rabbis and that the Rabbis seemed to purposely organize themselves to yield this effect. That these stories are as often started with “Rabbi A said often that Rabbi B” said makes the errand of attribution seem that much more ridiculous.

Like Derrida, they see the world as text. Unlike Derrida, they see this as unambiguously the fount of meaning; the ambiguity is in the meaning. “Meaning” is not monolithic; the belief in God is simply an impetus toward more vigorous reading of the world. It’s said the Ba’al Shem Tov described the Torah as a Rabbi Leibe Moshe tells a parable on “The Value of Not Believing In God”. Another rabbi looks for messages from God in telegraph lines and finds it. Not having the book in front of me I must paraphrase this from memory. But that’s what the rabbis wanted, wasn’t it?

“If God is everywhere, then what does he tell us in the telegraph line?” asks a young man.

“That what’s said here can be heard there,” replies the rabbi.

The learned man, incarnated in the form of the rabbi or translated otherwise, comes to knowledge in order to serves the social goal of gerrymandering the negative space of not-knowing, what can’t be known, what knowledge is false.

Lenny Bruce discussed in a bit which diseases were sexy. He was on to something. The same way people imagine their chances dating celebrities who they don’t and can’t know, certain diseases, especially of the psychological variety, are transformed through semiotic democracy into folk heroes, villains, forces, protective or invasive forces in or around the global village. If charisma is looking like a lot of other people, the charisma of a mental illness exists in its ability to look like a lot of other peoples’ minds.

Schizophrenia is the sexiest disease of the last hundred years. The Marilyn Monroe of pathologies. But while Marilyn’s leggy cheesecake was translated into the moving image schizophrenia’s tantalizing provocations reveal their unapproachable sex in the come-ons of clinical jargon and their transmigration into the vernacular use of the term. The popular understanding of schizophrenia is a parable of the present moment and its relation to the weakening of the social hegemony of the “expert”; in the assaultive media saturation of the present, what’s more relatable than someone screaming at the non-normative voices to stop?

The most popular literary forms of the present is the container; the encyclopedia, the strident simplification. These are defense tactics. The new barbarian horde is the unregulated spiraling outward of text.

Guest post by Daniel Levine. Check out his first book here. He also just released a comedy album which you can hear selections from for free here.