Empire Of Illusion

In 1962 Daniel J. Boorstin published The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. A pseudo-event is a public relations tactic—a carefully crafted, television-ready spectacle that makes news for the sake of making news. Think of the press conference or political debate—in Boorstin’s time and today. Add the celebrity Twitter “feud” and star-studded movie premiere as current examples.

Boorstin wrote eloquently about celebrities, people “known for their well-knowness.” The Kardashians exemplify well-knowness today. Kim Kardashian rose to fame following the leak of a private sex tape. Her first press release was a case of pubic relations. Who’s screwing whom, we ask TMZ. In the end it’s the buying public—emotionally stunted pop culture voyeurs anxious for the money shot.

We are just as disgusted with the Kardashians’ antics as we are mesmerized. Some of us maintain a healthy dose of incredulity, refusing to support the Kardashian Hype Machine. We use irony as a weapon in a post-ironic world in which selfies replace family portraits and depth is measured at face value, that is, the sexual worth men—and women—ascribe to the airbrushed female body.

But beyond our collective eye-roll, the Kardashian Image persists, sharpening its focus while simultaneously extending its field of vision. The Kardashians not only go about their business, but get stronger. Our derision feeds their appetite for attention. They assume the challenge and up the ante.

It’s the same today with athletes, pop stars and politicians. Our feeble attempts to question the billions of dollars pouring into professional sports and the national committees of both major political parties go unnoticed. The rich and famous absorb all discord, trampling plebeians too dumb to see that personal investments matter more than the public good. We pay people “known for their well-knowness” to entertain us, to rid us of the illusion that change is still possible, that there still exists a space for committed political action against a self-serving Consumer Society.

Mandatory Fun

“Free Time,” a 1977 essay by cultural critic Theodor Adorno, examines the relationship between work time and leisure time. We think we’re free when it comes to our free time, Adorno asserts, but leisure is simply an extension of the workday. Even at play, we labor to enjoy ourselves.

The compulsion to consume: we make money in order to spend it on crap we don’t need when we’re not on the clock. Entire industries are dedicated to filling up our leisure time, to satisfy our need for (temporary) freedom. The totality of this process escapes us. Adorno: “Hence the ease with which free time is integrated; people are unaware of how utterly unfree they are, even where they feel most at liberty, because the rule of such unfreedom has been abstracted from them” (191).

Threatened by the specter of boredom, people crave distractions. Adorno holds nothing back in his condemnation of our obsession with the cheap thrills popular culture provides:

People have been refused freedom, and its value belittled, for such a long time that now people no longer like it. They need shallow entertainment, by means of which cultural conservatism patronizes and humiliates them, in order to summon up the strength for work, which is required of them under the arrangement of society which cultural conservatism defends. (193)

The culture industry placates us, snuffs out the faintest flicker of rebellion in the heart of man. Capitalism finds support in a cultural conservatism that reinforces the compulsion to work and spend, work and spend. A “shocking” movie or provocative painting makes no significant political difference after we’ve consumed it. The status quo remains. Tomorrow’s shift awaits.

Low Tolerance

America has become the most earnest nation in the history of the world. Tolerance is our cartoon Muhammad.

This week Comedy Central picked Trevor Noah to replace Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show later this year. Controversial tweets he posted as far back as six years ago have resurfaced.

Roseanne Barr told Noah on Twitter to “cease sexist & anti semitic ‘humor’ about jewish women & Israel.” This from a comedian who twenty-five years ago, after yelling “The Star-Spangled Banner,” spit and grabbed her crotch like a baseball player.

In 2012 she tweeted George Zimmerman’s parents’ home address and phone number. They sued her.

Maybe this is all Twitter’s fault. Kids, if you’re planning on running for President three decades from now, be sure to delete your Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, Google Plus, Spotify, Pinterest, Myspace, Foursquare, and WordPress accounts immediately. Apologize to anyone with the slightest memory of one of your tasteless comments. Oh, and don’t connect to the internet or speak/text into a cell phone ever again.

If you’re a comedian refrain from humor. Or you’ll be found unfit to tell jokes on TV.

If Sartre Married A Kardashian

Way back in the twentieth century Sartre famously declared: “Existence precedes essence.” You exist first, Sartre said, then you build a life. You are nothing more—or less—than the choices you make. As a condemned-to-be-free consumer in the Digital Age, I’ve discovered new ways of applying Sartre’s catchphrase.

Facebook precedes friendship

I’m not friends with someone unless we’re on the same page: Facebook. Before Mark Zuckerberg stole from those dopey twins and set the social media world on fire, people connected on a personal level. Facebook eliminates the need for genuine communication. And yet we’re socializing more than ever. Without accepting my friend request you’re just another stranger. Even if we’re twins.

Google precedes memory

Don’t know what I mean? Here let me Google that for you. Eons ago when elders passed down stories via word of mouth, memory played a vital role. Today our myths assume database form, milliseconds from our fingertips. It’s a far cry from oral history. But if you’re at work don’t Google anything with “oral” in it.

Twitter precedes mourning

People used to die in peace, away from cameras and smartphones—and smartphone cameras. Die today as a celebrity and the world will tweet its condolences. There are no private ceremonies anymore. Everyone’s an eloquent eulogist exalting your character in one-hundred-and-forty characters or less.

Instagram precedes eating

Enjoy your chicken enchiladas after capturing the essence of the dish in a shot creatively captioned: “Best lunch ever!”

Smooth Operator

In 1969, the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler wrote, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” I’ve come to embrace Huebler’s ideas, though it might be retooled as, “The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” It seems an appropriate response to a new condition in writing today: faced with an unprecedented amount of available text, the problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. I’ve transformed from a writer into an information manager, adept at the skills of replicating, organizing, mirroring, archiving, hoarding, storing, reprinting, bootlegging, plundering, and transferring. (Kenneth Goldsmith; quoted in Jeffrey T. Nealon, Post-Postmodernism, 2012, p. 166; emphasis added)

Goldsmith is on to something here. He’s the author of The Weather, Sports, and Traffic, a trilogy that as Nealon (p. 165) explains, “consists of straight transcriptions of eleven o’clock news weather reports (a year), a baseball game (every word of a single Yankee game radio broadcast), and traffic reports (a full day of traffic reports, ‘on the 1s’).”

Is this the future of writing? What happens when poetry turns into data manipulation—search engines determining word choice, spreadsheets functioning as figures of speech—the artist transformed into a smooth operator stripped of Goldsmith’s ironic detachment?

People wonder if computers will eventually think like humans. I foresee a world in which humans think like computers. The end of Art signaling the end of Man. Life as intelligence gathering. Love as business transaction. What’s your number? exchanged for What do the numbers say?

The Death Of The Blogger

In 1967 the literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes formally announced the Death of the Author. “It is language which speaks,” Barthes declares, “not the author.” Echoing Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia, Barthes writes:

We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture. The writer can only imitate a gesture forever anterior, never original. (emphasis added)

There’s nothing new to say. Writing is a performance, a mix of styles. The author’s ideas are someone else’s. He merely borrows and reappropriates them in his text. Assuming the author creates, that it’s his Genius on display, is false. He is simply a conduit of culture; language speaks through him.

This is true of blogs. Even when I’m not setting off another writer’s words in block quotes, I’m summoning ideas already thought. Baudrillard. Bakhtin. Barthes. Putting dead philosophers’ words in my mouth.

The Information Haze

The Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus declared, “You could not step twice into the same river.” He was fascinated by change, how nothing stays still. My second step into say, the Des Plaines River, isn’t technically a second step because moments after the first step I am not the same nor is the river.

Martin Irvine, a professor of media studies, has brought this concept into the twenty-first century. “You can’t step into the same flow of information once,” he writes on his website. Today information flows so rapidly, so incessantly and through so many channels that I can’t force even the smallest drop to pause long enough to chart its course.

But there’s more to this. Today I can’t step into separate flows of information because I’m immersed in INFORMATION all the time. I’m drowning in gigabytes. Choking on algorithms. The only stepping is to “step out.” In other words, to die.

One day, I fear, data will subdue us. We will succumb to inputs and outputs. The Cloud will know everything. Especially our secrets. We’ll be laid bare, the world entirely visible. Nothing left to see here, people. Nothing left to see.

The Ecstasy Of Communication

[T]oday we have entered into a new form of schizophrenia—with the emergence of an immanent promiscuity and the perpetual interconnection of all information and communication networks. No more hysteria, or projective paranoia as such, but a state of terror which is characteristic of the schizophrenic, an over-proximity of all things, a foul promiscuity of all things which beleaguer and penetrate him, meeting with no resistance, and no halo, no aura, not even the aura of his own body protects him. (Jean Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication, 1987, p. 30)

There’s a lot going on in this passage. To dissect its meaning would murder the poetry. I know only that I enjoy it, that my returning to it says something about my relationship with “an immanent promiscuity and the perpetual interconnection of all information and communication networks.”

I’ve written many times about people’s fascination with cell phones. I fancy myself a part-time cultural critic pointing out the pitfalls of exchanging what makes us human for the allure of the newest all-mighty gadget, the “Next Big Thing,” as one company likes to advertise.

But last week I bought a smartphone. Simply put: I like it. For too long I muddled through life without a reliable 4G LTE network, an unlimited data plan, or a strong enough signal to text from my basement.

There’s no disconnect here. Now I can Google the nearest independent bookstore, call them up and ask for the obscure French philosophy department. All the way from my basement.

 

Breaking News

An event, especially a painful experience, feels most intense to the person or people directly involved in it. Hearing about something that happened to someone else can be troubling, but pales in comparison to the discomfort the sufferer endures.

Say I break my leg. As news of my accident spreads to people in my immediate circle, the impact of the event carries weight, but its magnitude decreases as the story passes through the grapevine and filters out away from me. I matter to a small group of family and friends, but beyond them my suffering means little, save for the doctors and nurses who treat my injury.

But what happens when Harrison Ford breaks his leg, as he did earlier this month on the set of the new Star Wars film? The media pick up the story, turning coverage of the event into an event in itself. First it’s reported he broke his ankle; it matters not that a few days later we learn it’s his leg. As word spreads, the truth of Ford’s experience undergoes profound shifts. Our attention quickly turns to questions like: How does this affect filming? Will this delay the film’s release? What scene was he shooting? What more might I learn about this blockbuster-in-waiting?

I break news of my mishap on Twitter and Facebook or look for sympathy on my blog. I post a video of me falling, the snapping of the bone ready at the click of “play.” The personal is public. A lot less people care about my misfortunes than Ford’s fans do about his, but strangers whom I’ll never meet find out that I’m in pain thanks to the gospel of gossip: social media.

As information accelerates—as we share and overshare detail after detail—the lived experience of individual events gets discounted, forgotten, displaced. My truth, as it passes from person to person—and Ford’s truth, as it cycles from news outlet to news outlet—gathers false details and suffers from serious omissions, such that appearances trump the Real. But nobody cares about the truth; we simply need to know everything all the time without considering sources or fussing over facts.

It’s like saying “orange” over and over in a short span to the point of exhaustion. The tongue turns “orange” inside out, perverting its sound, stretching it into nonsense. The media repeat (reproduce) stories many times over, draining them of substance, erasing all traces of human suffering. Lost in the business of its global display, tragedy becomes spectacle. Remember: we’re only considering a famous actor’s broken leg; what might we say about America’s recent reentry into Iraq or the VA scandal that resulted in the deaths of veterans waiting for medical care?

Every accident becomes spectacle. Pain becomes mundane. When everything’s covered, when no moment escapes the watchful eye of real-time “expert analysis,” the spectacle itself is breaking news.

Critical Theory

I find myself attracted to art that might be labeled “depressing.” Sometimes I fear I’m simply indulging my illness, looking for verification of the thought: “Life sucks and then you die.” In my sadness, the theory goes, I long for the sadness of others. Perhaps I’d be better off listening to Joel Osteen or binge-watching Little House on the Prairie.

At the risk of sounding like a fuddy-duddy modernist, I believe that art can change the world. This doesn’t mean paint puppies, rainbows and butterflies. Authentic art depicts things as they are, exposes them as being socially constructed rather than natural, and suggests alternative paths to freedom.

A big part of my depression involves my tendency to be self-critical. I’m always looking to improve, sometimes to the point of exhausting myself in the mythical pursuit of Perfection. My internal critique extends outward, into social and political spheres. I’m not content with accepting things at face value. I ask questions and search for inconsistencies between what people claim to believe and how they act.

I’m attracted to “depressing” art not because I’m looking for an alibi for my sadness, but instead because I’m unhappy with the status quo and want to uproot entrenched cultural assumptions. It goes beyond my depression or the somber nature of contemporary art.

It’s life that’s tragic. It’s life that’s unkind.