Tuesday, August 8, 2017

stray thoughts: the rhyming spiral of history (pt 1)

Walter Raleigh (artist unknown) and Donald Trump (via Vasco Gargalo).
Note the politicians' shared affinity for ruffs.
Given all the signs and wonders promulgated daily in the sci&tech news, it can be tempting to believe the hype, to conclude that our present epoch isn't merely brighter, more diffuse, and faster than earlier ages, but that it signals a social mutation no less explosive than the genesis of agriculture. Maybe so. But as long as one can turn to the literature of earlier ages and still relate to it, and find consonance between accounts of historical moments and today's current events narratives, one must admit that all our extracutaneous prosthetics haven't entirely reinvented humanity and its social institutions (not yet?), but rejiggered them, accelerated them. This isn't to say that our age isn't unexceptional, but it's often difficult to tell where the quantitative changes end and the qualitative transformations begin.

Case in point: I've been reading Jacob Bronowski and Bruce Mazlish's The Western Intellectual Tradition from Leonardo to Hegel (1962)—I grabbed a used copy ten years ago from a "take these or we're throwing them out" table at my alma mater and finally dug it up and cracked it open—and am routinely writing "cf. virilio" or "we use twitter for that now" in the margins. For example, the chapter on the Elizabethan Age contains a few paragraphs about Walter Raleigh:
[Raleigh's] progress at court was made simpler by the fact that he was a handsome man. He was also helped by his intellectual accomplishments. For example, he read not only the learned tongues but French and Spanish fluently; and none of this was lost on Elizabeth, who was also proficient in languages (it is said that she knew five or six fluently, and read Machiavelli in the original).
More important, Raleigh was helped by his first-rate literary gift. He wrote very good poetry at a time when advancement at court depended, in part, on such an accomplishment. As one writer states it, "The delicate games of tokens and poetry were essential to a world where personal relationships were never merely private, and where public relationships were never merely formal. To mock or spoof one's rival successfully in a poem might be to laugh him out of court."
We could substitute "wrote very good poetry" with "was skilled at communicating via social media" and replace "advancement at court" with "political advancement" and produce a fairly accurate sentence describing politics in the United States (and elsewhere, the yokel from Jersey imagines) as they work today. We all witnessed the brash political novice with a natural genius for 140-character populist rhetoric and trash-talking steamrolling his competitors in the Republican primaries and winning the White House last year. We might also recall Trump's collaring of Steve Bannon earlier in the spring, which appears to have been motivated, at least in part, by the widespread circulation of the #presidentbannon meme.

Prima facie, could we call the former event a qualitative change and the latter a quantitative transformation?

All presidential candidates since Jackson (who's surprised about Trump's affinity for Old Hickory? Anyone?) have slung mud at their opponents and aggrandized themselves on the campaign trail, but Trump has availed himself of the popular microblogging platform to do it with greater speed and penetration than can be gained through the traditional information war machines of print, radio, and television media. The success of the #presidentbannon meme is more interesting, and perhaps representative of a qualitative advance. Ambitious members of Queen Elizabeth's court could sink their rivals by caricaturing them in verse, and it seems Trump's inner circle is no less susceptible to satire. Only in this case, it wasn't mocking ditties from other figures in the Administration that turned Bannon's fortunes, but mocking tweets from the hoi polloi, observing the dynamics of personality and power in the White House (now, as before, relations between political colleagues are neither private nor wholly instrumental), and strategically attacking the Chief Strategist by satirizing his perceived role as puppetmaster to Trump. The democratizing tendency of social media hasn't exactly installed box seating for the public against the far wall of the the Oval Office, but it has placed everyday detractors in a position where they're at liberty to slip notes onto the President's desk without having to pass through any of the usual courtiers (provided the note is undersigned by a sufficiently large mass of retweeters, armchair activists, and shitposters).

Of course, Bannon's appearance on the (old media) Saturday Night Live also reportedly got under Trump's skin (as did its treatment of long-suffering Press Secretary Sean Spicer), and he wasn't too happy about seeing Bannon's face on the cover of Time magazine (OLD old media) either. The #resist crowd's self-congratulations for compelling Trump into giving Bannon's leash a sharp yank might be undeserved. But it also warrants asking: who in the Time newsroom and Saturday Night Live writers' room isn't paying attention to Twitter trends? Should we believe that they're not to any extent calibrating their content with social media shareability (and the tastes of the "influencer" caste) in mind?

At what point does the ongoing, technologically spurred democratization of civic institutions intensify to the point where "more" bounces over to "new and different?" Are we already there? And to what degree and where is the impulse countered by the concurrent rise in oligarchism? Might the two vectors actually be reinforcing each other? Is the democratization of chatter and spectacle just a shorebound breaker concealing the plutocratic riptide underneath? Would the social framework of a new, high-tech Ancien RĂ©gime differ enough from the old to distinguish it as a unique and unprecedented phenomenon in history?

I think these are good questions. I wonder if history has any answers.

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