Saturday, October 22, 2022

Celebrity, Mythology, & The Machine (part 9)

René Magritte, The Lovers (1928)

Whoops. A couple of days ago I accidently hit "publish" on the draft that I'd been using as a repository for notes and stuff cut out of other pieces. I never said I was any good at this.


The development of media technology in the West was from the beginning a movement toward individuation and estrangement. It's right there in the Latin meaning of the word. Medium. A middle; something that stands between.

Information in a nonliterate society cannot remain inert. It must be enacted, it must circulate. The externalization of speech as written language denuded human interdependence in its original, direct forms. The more one can learn from a book, the less one requires a teacher, guide, or knowledgeable companion. When news of community affairs is delivered through a paper, one no longer needs to hear it from her neighbors. Stories and poetry taken in through the eye instead of the ear become matters of private leisure instead of communal occasions.

In a primary oral culture, the transmission of verbal information necessitates a direct interaction between speakers and listeners. Communication here is immediate and interactive; feedback from the listeners influence what the speaker says and how he says it, and the exchange of information most often occurs under circumstances which are conterminous for both speaker and listener. In other words, the contexts of the acts of speaking and listening overlap. But this is obvious: the speaker wouldn't be speaking if a listener weren't nearby, and vice versa. A social environment such as this can't be expected to breed many introverts or loners. "Primary orality fosters personality structures that in certain ways are more communal and externalized, and less introspective than those common among literates," Walter Ong writes in his 1982 classic Orality and Literacy. "Oral communication unites people in groups."

Conversely, between the novelist and the reader of her book is interposed a labyrinthine social complex that confronts each of them in a different aspect.

To the novelist, the reader is not only invisible, but mystified—a fungible quantitative unit of a nebulous "audience" that generates the data that determines the course of her career. Where the reader is concerned, the personal affinity or even the nearness she feels to the author comes about as an illusion of the simulated language she parses on the pages. If we're talking about degrees of separation, the bookstore clerk, the receiver, the guy who delivers product from the distribution center, and the worker who loads the box of hardcovers onto the truck approach the reader more closely than the author herself—but the reader regards them at most as an afterthought, just as she does the people involved in harvesting trees, shipping the lumber, manufacturing the paper, and printing the books that bear the author's name.

This facet of parasociality in general deserves more recognition: the imaginary relationship obscures more proximate ones, similar to how the moon and the (unfortunately named) inferior planets are made practically invisible by the afternoon sun.

(Note: the publishing industry's purpose has not so much to do with literature, but with producing surplus value for the capitalists who own the bookstores, the publishing houses, the paper mills, the tree plantations, and every other institution involved in eliciting a manuscript from the author and a purchase of a printed book by the reader. All the better if the author finds gratification writing the book and the reader feels edified reading it, but these things are truly incidental to the collective enterprise of book production and sales.)

Not only does the content of the medium—an abstraction of person-to-person speech—seem to nullify the gulf between the author and reader, it suggests to the latter the consubstantiation of the former with her book. We are prone to anthropomorphizing media artifacts, and bring this tendency out in the open whenever we say something like "I've been reading a lot of Neil Gaiman lately."

But this is all rather outdated. Print is yesterday's news. 

Nam June Paik, Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii (1995)

As you know, Marshall McLuhan described the drift of literature cultures toward segmentation, specialization, and individualism as a process of detribalization. As he tells it, the cognitive habits advanced by print culture made possible the scientific revolution, while the mechanical reproduction of texts via the printing press provided the conceptual template for the serial manufacture of commodities that simultaneously fueled the industrial revolution and impelled Western societies to reorganize themselves as modern capitalist states—the social conditions of which preclude those of community and direct interdependence (though this phrasing is redundant).

McLuhan's observation that the sensory dimensions, simultaneity, emotional conductivity, and supernormal depth involvement of electric media is retribalizing us appears to be borne out by the countless studies, news articles, and thinkpieces about acrimonious political polarization, procrustean groupthink, identitarianism, online mob behavior, social contagion, and so on. If this is all true, how do we square it with all the other reports we've been seeing about the inexorable decline in civic life, people today generally having fewer friends than did previous generations, social isolation reaching "epidemic" levels, and other such trends? (All of which, by the way, were well in progress before the coronavirus pandemic accelerated them in 2020.)

In other words, how can we be tribalized and isolated?

McLuhan, like Marx, couldn't predict the future as precisely as some of his acolytes liked to imagine. After all, he was busy formulating his media theories in the 1950s and 1960s—at a time when people typically watched television together. A passage from his 1964 book Understanding Media makes explicit his assumption that television is an inherently group-oriented activity, and I've boldfaced a line that comes across today as quaint, if not naïve:

Typographic man took readily to film just because, like books, it offers an inward world of fantasy and dreams. The film viewer sits in psychological solitude like the silent book reader. This was not the case with the manuscript reader, nor is it true of the watcher of television. It is not pleasant to turn on TV just for oneself in a hotel room, nor even at home. The TV mosaic image demands social completion and dialogue.

At the time, it was a safe assumption. That same year, the New York Times reported that while 93 percent of American households had at least one TV set, only 17 percent had more than one. Families typically kept their single TV in the living room, the designated public space of the American household, doorless and usually accessible by at least two other ground-story rooms. Unless the viewer was at home by herself, she never watched the Lawrence Welk Show in true privacy. (Note also that America's marriage rates were significantly higher in the mid-twentieth century than they are today. In 1958, only 10.4 million out of a total of 173 million Americans lived alone or with non-relatives.)

By 1990, the average number of television sets per household was two. TV made its ingression into the bedroom, where the teenager, housemate, or spouse could bask in its glow behind a closed door. The rising number of adults living by themselves had no mitigating effect on viewing rates; evidently the prospect of watching TV alone wasn't so unpleasant as McLuhan claimed.

Nor, as it happened, was playing video games alone. Or watching movie rentals alone. Or watching Twitch streamers alone. Or using a pocket-sized computer and a pair of noise cancelling headphones to attain a state of psychological solitude amid a crowd in a public space.

Without getting into the grainy particulars, it's fair to say we've become tribalistic in our attitudes but solitary in our habits, and additionally susceptible to the thoroughgoing alienation conditioned by the sociopolitical situation whose defining characteristics—predominately transactional relationships, compartmentalized social functions (as opposed to integrated roles), lack of attachment to the land, the periodic invasion of both labor time and consumption-as-leisure by a disquieting sense of meaninglessness, the learned helplessness that expresses itself as jaded doomerism, and so on—are popularly synopsized under the term "late capitalism."

This should be intolerable. We're social animals, aren't wet? Otherwise one would suppose that solitary confinement in prison shouldn't be tantamount to torture, the months-long coronavirus lockdowns wouldn't have driven so many people up the wall, or that feelings of loneliness wouldn't correlate with poor health, impaired cognitive functions, shorter lifespans, and so on.  

We're adrift and lonely, yes, but being by oneself in a small room with a mildewed window isn't quite so unpleasant when it's filled with objects that imitate much of the stimuli encountered in social contexts, and which deliver us dynamic simulacra of life beyond the walls. Perhaps we barely speak to anyone as we leave the house, ride the train to the office, sit at our workstation for eight hours, ride the train back home, and return to our one-bedroom apartment, but at least we have our community, be it the Guilty Gear community, the Hololive community, the Doctor Who community, the Harry Potter fanfic community, or whatever. We've never met any of them, but they retweet such great content and upvote our contributions on Reddit. It's wonderful to feel like we're a part of something, isn't it?

It should come as no shock that many people report that they prefer to spend their leisure time sequestered with one or more devices on the basis that the machines demand less of them than would actual social occasions.

They have a point. We make a stimulus supernormal not only by intensifying certain characteristics towards thresholds seldom or never encountered in ordinary experience, but also by removing attendant properties and consequences which are typically onerous, aversive, or even simply neutral. The exemplar here is pornography.

Salvador Dali, The Great Masturbator (1929) (detail)

On the one hand, a scripted and edited video recording of sex acts between "actors" selected for their attractiveness, ability to perform, and willingness to do anything on camera for a paycheck can bring the onanistic viewer to a height of titillation surpassing that of his intimate time with a human partner, and the practically limitless variety of Pornhub content somewhat simulates the experience of having more partners than most of us are capable of taking to bed in our lifetimes. On the other hand, we have everything about sex that porn excludes. Asking someone out. Trying to impress them over dinner and drinks and wondering if it's working. Asking yourself what went wrong when they tell you they'd like to call it a night. The mortification of premature ejaculation. The mutual disappointment of failing to bring them to climax. Finding out they're not in the mood after half an hour of foreplay. Getting up earlier than you'd like on a Sunday to have breakfast with their parents. Dealing with another person's baggage and bullshit when you already have enough of your own. Realizing you're chained to a psycho with daddy issues and the only conceivable way out is to fake your own death, and then finding yourself heartbroken and lost when they suddenly dump you first. And so on.

To be clear, I am not making a case on behalf of Pornhub. All I'm saying is that jacking off in front of a computer or with a smartphone in your non-dominant hand is easier in virtually every way than embarking on the fraught path between a personal introduction and coitus. And why shouldn't the path of lesser resistance appeal to us more than the one that makes us work for our gratification?

In the same respect, listening to Spotify is easier than going out to see a band perform, or getting together with friends to make some music for yourself. Calling somebody on the phone is easier than going out to meet them, and texting is easier than calling. Listening to a podcast is easier than arranging a symposium with people you actually know. Watching sports is easier than playing them; watching an action movie or playing a first-person shooter is certainly easier (and less hazardous) than leading a life of action. Watching a Twitch streamer play a video game is easier than...well, you get the idea.

Our limbs weaken when the day-to-day work of survival no longer depends on their strength and dexterity. Our social faculties likewise diminish when maintaining the interpersonal fabric of a group living in the same place has little to no bearing on keeping (most of) them fed, clothed, housed, and safe. If we all mind our own business and do our jobs, we get our paychecks and pay our rent, buy food and fuel, subsidize social services, and so on—and if we don't feel edified by our work and aren't on more than just polite speaking terms with our neighbors or coworkers, we can experience involvement and purpose through media engagement. In this way, social life atrophies like an unused muscle.

Anselm McGovern calls the relation between the conversation and the podcast analogous to that between intercourse and pornography. We could expand on this, couldn't we? Video games are to practical goal-oriented activity what pornography is to intercourse. Spotify and earbuds are to people and musical instruments what pornography is to intercourse. Binge watching Netflix is to being in the world what pornography is to intercourse. Et cetera.

Until fairly recently I thought Baudrillard was indulging in sensationalism by calling the late twentieth-century social environment "a world made pornographic" vis-à-vis hyperreality—but what else can you call a sphere of human experience so thoroughly pervaded by simulations compared to which their long-estranged templates in the pre-electric world seem undesirably humdrum, even bothersome?

A vicious circle emerges: the less unmediated reality has to offer us, the more eagerly we retreat from it; the more we all divest from the world beyond our walls, the less it has to offer any one of us. As life in what internet enthusiasts used to call "meatspace" appears increasingly impersonal and unpalatable in comparison with the content substituting real experience, we're more apt to blithely cede control of our environs to parties more interested in them than we are, though their interest is purely venal.

If perhaps we sometimes or often feel ourselves powerless, it is because we've planted our stake in the world in virtual territory, consenting to be users instead of citizens, spectators instead of agents.

Forgive me if that comes across as a sententious political harangue. I am, of course, as wired in to machinery as anyone else, so far be it from me to point fingers. And I don't mean to suggest that if we only spent a little less time watching Netflix and a little more time attending city council meetings, arranging neighborhood potlucks, and tending our community garden plots, all the cumulative mistakes of civilization since the invention of the power loom would be corrected. (Though, you have to admit, our time might be better spent that way.) All I want to say is that the culture of electric media is fundamentally one of estrangement and passivity.

Edward Hopper, Morning Sun (1952)

It doesn't matter if we spend our evening in a YouTube channel, trying to get Calliope Mori to acknowledge our existence, or on Twitter, quote-retweeting our favorite blueticks' screeds against the world's evils—every moment we do so is a vote with our time (insofar as time is money, we are voting with our dollars in a roundabout way) for more of this. More of the way things already are, more of the course we're on.

Oh, sure. Sometimes a film can inspire devotion to a cause, a pop star's advocacy can shift public attitudes regarding an issue, and social media platforms can be used to fuel and coordinate street protests—and none of this is necessarily inconsequential. But if we believe that the superstructure of civilization (ie., the legal, technical, and social architecture of transnational capitalism) is the root cause, or at least a powerful exacerbating factor in everything fucked up about the state of the world, we must admit that there are few institutions more integral to keeping that state locked in than the mass media complex. 

I take it you're familiar with Rage Against the Machine and the paradox at the heart of their rock n' rap activist ethos. They recorded albums that eloquently and righteously excoriated the military industrial complex, corporate journalismlandlords and power whores, and the selfsame culture industry of which they became stakeholders. They sold millions of records, T-shirts, posters, patches, and stickers. FM rock stations and MTV aired their singles between ad breaks. We blasted "Killing in the Name" from our home stereos, discmans, iPods, and our cars' custom sound systems. Perhaps you purchased one of their VHS tapes or DVDs and viewed it on your home entertainment setup. Maybe you were like me, and spun Evil Empire in your boombox while you played Nintendo games by yourself in the basement.

All in all, their music perhaps helped to shift a cohort's political sensibilities a bit further to the left than they otherwise might have gone, but their message of agitation, anticapitalism/anticolonialism, and social justice was negated in practice by the multitude of behavioral patterns promoted by the cultural arm of the machine Mr. de la Rocha would have us rage against.

In 2021, Coca-Cola released a run of cans with "inspirational messages" in the United Kingdom. Most of them were generic feel-good platitudes, as you'd expect. But imagine if you brought home a six-pack of the stuff from Tesco and read on the side of the third or fourth can you pulled from the fridge: Coca-Cola's pursuit of water resources has dried up wells and destroyed local agriculture across the world. The company has historically used violent repression to put down unionization efforts in Central America and elsewhere. Every sip you take brings you closer to diabetes. The Coca-Cola Company's operations make the world incrementally worse. Stop drinking Coca-Cola.

In all likelihood, what would you do? You'd drink the can, maybe feeling a little conflicted about doing so. Then you'd drink the rest of the six-pack. Later on you'd go out and buy more Coca-Cola, and maybe some Dr Pepper for the sake of variety. Sometimes you'd think of the strange, preachy can and feel a pang of regret, but what the hell—you're thirsty.

And that's more or less why millions of Rage Against the Machine records sold didn't breed a corresponding number of motivated revolutionaries. It isn't so much a case of the inadequacy of the master's tools to dismantle the master's house, but the incompatibility of the action the words and official imagery admonish the listener to take (implicitly or explicitly) with the constellation of habits that have been deeply ingrained by the time one of us has occasion to engage with Rage Against the Machine's music. And when discourse comes into conflict with habit, habit usually prevails.

Here we also find the reasons for the popularity of online activism and the superficial results it often yields. Most calls to action on a social media platform will be answered in kind—on a social media platform. If the followers/fans of the influencer-as-activist follow her example, what they're most likely to change is the flavor of content they generate and disseminate on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, etc. Granted, there are exceptional cases, but even here the most common result is a string of street demonstrations that allow malcontents to blow off steam in public before dispersing, going home, and resuming their usual routines. Being the change you want to see in the world usually entails sacrificing more than just one afternoon and the cost of some poster board and markers to make an Insta-worthy protest sign, and the alienated (but fed and well-entertained) subject of a consumer culture has a conditioned revulsion to calls to go without. 

As the spokespeople of the reigning order, the mythical avatars of advanced capitalism, the celebrity pantheon can be expected to voice concern about recognized social problems, and lend its clout to one side or the other in a debate regarding a controversial issue. In truth, it doesn't matter what cause célèbre any media entity champions through his or her music, films, awards-show speeches, social media accounts, or other platform. The primary impact of the content they have a hand in putting into circulation is to keep us seated, tuned in, marketed to, and content to go on consuming the products and using the services whose dividends fund Big Everything's latest acquisition. As the cynosural face of the culture industry, the celebrity may not be the manufacturer of consent, but can perhaps be called its salesperson.

Returning to turn-of-the-century agitprop metal bands: in 2002, System of a Down released its third studio record, Steal this Album. Not that I was paying that much attention, but I'm sure a lot of ink was spilled lauding album's anti-consumerist packaging and its allusion to Abbie Hoffman. In truth, the title was an ironic dig at Napster and the unreleased Toxicity demo tracks its users circulated—the polished versions of which became Steal this Album. Nevertheless: coming out as it did at a time when file-sharing apps had thrown the record industry into convulsions and the "information wants to be free" strain of digital utopianism was on the ascent, Steal this Album was perceived as striking a subversive chord.

Twenty years later, each of System of a Down's members is worth upwards of $16 million, and the music industry is still going strong. Sony Records remains in business, and presumably Warner Records still gets a cut every time one us streams a track from the band's first two albums on our personal media/habit monitoring/ad delivery device. So, you know, take that as you will. Call it the Banksy Phenomenon.

Is the American celebrity actually capable of subversive action? Anything that one says and does that draws media attention to themselves becomes integrated into the program.* A group of musicians who stage a Rock Against Gentrification concert, a band of famous stand-up comics who tour under a queer rights or anti-woke banner, a movie star or influencer who brings his entourage to an ICE detention facility or a protestors' encampment—each of these just draws the spectacle in a different direction, and ultimately extends its borders. It mystifies, commodifies, and eventually trivializes whatever it sets its sights on. Call it the Che Guevara T-Shirt Phenomenon.

Imagine if, instead of "steal my product," the celebrity were to say "don't buy my product, don't steal it, don't engage with it at all, forget I exist, cancel your streaming services, ditch your smartphone, toss out your TV, focus on the people around you instead of strangers in New York and Los Angeles, go out there and live because life is short and the shit that really matters is nothing you can buy or stream or quote tweet." Would that be dangerous?

Of course not. Depending on who said it, in what venue, and under what circumstances, it might generate a lot of buzz, clicks, thinkpieces, Reddit threads, daytime television chatter, trending hashtags, YouTuber and TikToker monologues, and podcast dialogue, giving us all another reason to keep our eyes and ears turned toward our devices. The spectacle cannot be subverted from within—and when it is with us always as our lives' very touchstone, it is all but inoculated against any resistance most of us have the stomach to mount, as is the vast techno-social machinery on whose behalf the media entity always speaks. No matter what flavor of politics he purports to vend, the celebrity is effectively the voice of conservatism, a Vishnu chanting the mantra which sustains the order of the world.

* Postscript: Notice how fast Kanye West was punished when he breached a taboo with his antisemitic gibberish. He claims to have lost $2 billion in one day. There are limits to the spectacle's elasticity; just ask the Dixie Chicks. Or, for that matter, ask Amiri Baraka: "When I was saying, 'White people go to hell,' I never had trouble finding a publisher," he said in a 1996 interview. "But when I was saying, 'Black and white, unite and fight, destroy capitalism,' then you suddenly get to be unreasonable." The truly subversive celebrity diminishes or negates their status as such in short order.


  1. If you think for a second that George Lucas was ever against the very system that made him richer than God, you should seriously revaluate your grip on reality.

  2. Return of the Jedi was seriously compromised because of Lucas' desire to sell toys and other merchandise. The cutesy Ewoks were introduced and hogged up so much screen time because of their marketability.

  3. A good alternative to RATM is Fugazi. Although not completely free from the machine they rage against, Fugazi expressed sincerity about their politics and beliefs through their cheap shows, cheap CDs (they're not cheap anymore if bought through a third party like Amazon though) and not only shunned band merchandise, but wrote this song against it:

    The debut albums of Killing Joke, Gang of Four, and Bad Brains are pretty sincere, as are Minutemen ("Double Nickels on the Dime"). These bands had the talent of something like RATM and SOAD, but without the double standards.