Democratic Nihilism

In one of his final books, Telemorphosis, Jean Baudrillard discusses the spectacle of reality TV. He sets his sights on Loft Story, the French adaptation of the popular American show Big Brother. Baudrillard argues that fans of Loft Story value the show’s contestants not for their talents, but for their lack of any talent at all. He draws parallels between reality TV and democracy:

The democratic illusion is thus elevated to the highest degree: the maximal exaltation for a minimal qualification. And, while the traditional principle merely insured a partial recognition for merit, the operation of the Loft insures a virtual glory to everyone in terms of the absence of merit itself. On one hand, it is the end of democracy, by the extinction of any qualification of merit whatsoever, but on the other hand, it is the result of an even more radical democracy [based on] the beatification of the man without qualities. It is a great step towards democratic nihilism. (25-26)

Everyone in the Loft is destined for “virtual glory.” The opposite of the best and the brightest, the cast is governed by the rule of the lowest common denominator. Inspired by “democratic nihilism,” viewers get the cheap entertainment they’re looking for, and Baudrillard condemns them for it.

“The society which permits itself to enjoy the enthusiastic spectacle of this masquerade deserves exactly what it gets. Loft Story is both the mirror and the disaster of an entire society caught up in the race towards meaninglessness and swooning in front of its own banality” (27-28).

We can extend Baudrillard’s pop culture analysis to the state of American politics today. Citizens who vote incompetent people into office get the government they deserve. In 2016, millions of Americans voted against a former senator and secretary of state in favor of a reality TV host whose resume includes filing for bankruptcy four times and appearing as himself in the classic American film Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.

Earlier this week, Trump’s origin story became a news event once again. In an interview with FOX Business Network reporter Maria Bartiromo, Trump spoke fondly of social media.

“I doubt I’d be here without social media, to be honest with you, because there is a fake media out there, I get treated very unfairly by the media, and I have a tremendous platform,” Trump said.

Twitter—a tremendous platform for petty people the world over—helps Trump govern via intimidation.

“So, when somebody says something about me, I’m able to go ‘bing, bing, bing,’ and I take care of it. The other way I’d never be able to get the word out.”

Perhaps this is the way the world ends—with a bing, bing, bing rather than a bang or whimper.

Marshall McLuhan said long ago that the medium is the message. Today the medium is the spectacle, and Twitter is the spectacle writ large. Twitter invites users to an orgy of information in which the reliability of hard news is faked like an orgasm in a collective sigh of disbelief.

Believe it or not, the president, according to the president, is the master of his Twitter domain.

“You know, they’re well crafted, I was always a good student, like a person who does well with that kind of thing,” Trump said eloquently about his posts.

The Society of the Selfie deserves President Trump, a man of “lights, camera, action” serving his own business interests at the expense of those he deems beneath him. Trump is the villain in a bad foreign relations film with no subtitles and no substance. And we’re on the edge of his tweets, hanging on every misspelled word.


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.

Falling For A High-Wire Act

There’s not much room for poetry in the world today. Most of the texts produced now are text messages, not works of art. As someone who calls himself a poet, I’ve been wondering lately what this means for the future of poetry.

First, some history.

When we look to the literary period that began in the late nineteenth century and ended in the mid twentieth, the time known as modernism, we see the importance of voice in poetry. Modernist poets focused on developing their own unique style, their voice, as a vehicle for conveying their message. There was a sense that the poet could change society through art, even while the effects of modernity were sweeping across the globe, bringing about two world wars and mass anxiety.

Then came the 1960s, when culture blew itself up. Enter postmodernism and the assault on identity. Some theorists went so far as to announce “the death of the subject”; others insisted that the concept of an individual subject standing before objects-in-the-world was a fantasy in the first place, an illusion man held onto in the face of ever-changing realities (forget Reality) over which he had no control. Postmodernist poets found themselves imitating older styles, assuming distant voices as a means of mocking them and highlighting their insistence that there were no new voices to create.

Fast-forward to today. Culture in the early twenty-first century has eluded labeling. For our purposes, let’s give contemporary life the cumbersome title of post-postmodernism.

The internet has changed reality in ways we’ve yet to comprehend, and post-postmodernist poetry is still finding its way in a cultural landscape where Facebook and Twitter take up huge chunks of our day. Poetry’s not dead but at times appears to be on life support. We haven’t lost our desire for creativity—we just don’t rely as much on traditional activities (see Reading and Writing) for quenching our creative thirst. There’s a void in poetry today, a sense that it’s a matter of poets talking only to poets, that the common man has been excluded.

Last week Nik Wallenda wrote the masses a new, refreshing poem.

Wallenda is the daredevil who walked 1,800 feet across Niagara Falls on a two-inch wire on, what else, live TV. The self-proclaimed “King of the Wire” drew 13.1 million viewers on June 15, and many folks are still talking and tweeting and blogging about his feat.

Utilizing heroic action and the threat of disaster, Wallenda’s poem reminded us how much we’ve lost while trying to conquer Nature through technology. He recaptured the narrative of our conquest before we lost sense of it, many of us today blind to “the world-out-there” as we scroll through our majestic iPad screens to comment on the latest piano-playing cat clip on YouTube.

For a moment, Wallenda brought us out of our collective trance. We all became daredevils, anxious to hear the showman confess how much he had prayed for this to happen, how he had asked God for the strength to accomplish his goal of inspiring the world.

“Live your dreams,” he declared in full-blown superficiality.

In a country where most of us don’t get to live our dreams, where the promise of success to everyone who “tries” has been seen for the ruse it truly is, we needed this new poetry, this real-life illusion of renewed control.

Wallenda stayed upright the whole way, penning his epic poem. And we gladly fell for his act.