Saturday, 4 February 2017

Society of the Co-opted Spectacle

Who wants to uncover something ugly about themselves?

Look at these photos from the recent University of California, Berkeley protests, and despair. Don't get caught on the bonfire or the masked men. Observe the crowd. What do you see?

When you learn to pay attention to the shape of the negative space, and also the contents of the negative space, you begin to notice what shouldn't be seen. With media images, you have to "see" what isn't there: how is the story constructed out of what is not shown. A typical media manoeuvre is to show a story without showing you the media itself because seeing it tells a different story.

In movies, you're supposed to know this, but willingly block out the knowledge so you can enjoy the movie. But this teaches you to accept willingly the blocking of the same setup when watching an interview of the prime minister or, in this case, footage of a protest. The presented picture doesn't just leave some things out, it leaves almost everything out except one tiny part.


So back to the violence in UC Berkeley. In the blackness, the fire rages sending hot light across the courtyard, but in the foreground are sprinkled far more dangerous blue lights. Hundreds of them. Every point a connection to somewhere, anywhere that's not here. Those lights transport the viewer to a pretend world created by the camera-holder. But what is far worse for the soul of society, those lights also serve to remove the person holding the camera from the life in front of their eyes.

They carve off pieces of themselves to cling to the belief they are both involved and distanced. In their broken minds, the mutually exclusive realities don't actually clash. Trained as they have been since birth by CNN and Hollywood to understand the world within frames on a screen, the reflex is to reach for the camera, not to assert its irrelevance.


Sending images to "inform the world," isn't the goal. The desperate psychology explaining the frantic energy is to feel comfortable, to pathetically search for a process, and therefore control what's in front of them...somehow.

Those kids were told what to experience in life (travel the world, go to college, find a job you enjoy), but were never told how to experience life. To them, they see only chaos and mystery and have no process by which to comprehend that storm. Allowing the chaos to overwhelm them, they feel an unavoidable revelation that maybe they aren't free after all, that they aren't in control of their lives.

Out comes the camera to "capture" the scenery offering the blessed comfort of fake control, like the reverse psychology of telling a group of six-year-olds they "can only have one asparagus each" so the little tykes think their choice actually matters.

That photograph of the violent protests depicts a common sight in modern political street action, and it's why all this talk about a "people's" resistance against the new American president is doomed to failure. As I've written before, the first thing protestors should do is tip over the news van. The media is not your friend. And if you notice camera lenses glinting in the firelight, use your smartphone to shatter the glass. Just don't then stand on the pile of warped cameras and satellite dishes to create a spectacle. Understand how the spectacle is the problem.

Try also to see how the moment those kids chose to lift their cameras towards the firelight and click record, they also chose not to participate. You can't have it both ways. You can't stand with phone in hand acting as an observer and be part of a violent political action. Or do you think the Bolsheviks could still have stormed the palace with a pistol in one hand and an iPhone in the other?

Yet participation isn't really what you wanted, was it? If you had to ask what motivated your decision to arrive at UC Berkeley that evening, would "willing to die for a revolution" accurately describe your desire? Of course not. You're the same as everyone else in that courtyard. Ask them, and you'll get the same answer. You were told through the ether that meaning and belonging were waiting in the cold night air. Deep down, you all probably knew it was a lie, but to a starving person even bread crusts look like gourmet meals


By publicising their experience, they highlighted the poignant limit of the connected world, and that limit is this: we all face death alone.

The experience of a riot becomes less scary if they tweet about it, mock it, or turn it into a game. In other words, they turn to Twitter as a real-time escape from an unpleasant experience. People have always done this. Escaping from reality when that reality becomes uncomfortable is a common, and effective, coping mechanism. It's why grown-ups with full concentration and furrowed brow, will struggle their way through crossword puzzles at the dentist’s office.

But those phones also unveil the true role of “social media” in our modern world. Social networks are not really about connecting us with others, they are about mediating our experience of reality. Twitter and Facebook allow us to distance ourselves by allowing us to comment reflectively and reflexively on real-time events.


Susan Sontag wrote a now famous book about photography everyone should read called On Photography. Ms Sontag remarked how taking a photograph means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world which feels like knowledge, and therefore like power. She says photography is a way to alienate oneself from the world, to abstract it and make it emotionally and cognitively manageable.

She also rather famously wrote, “the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.” I would argue social networks have a similar effect. The act of tweeting or updating our status, of constantly reflecting on the unfolding of our experiences right in front of us, makes us tourists in our own lives. We abstract everything away to give us the illusion of understanding those events and therefore to give us the illusion of power over them.


But more importantly, and unlike photography, social networks validate a mistaken belief that our lives are worth visiting, that our private joys and tragedies somehow play out on a grander scale than is actually the case. I bet every one of those kids at the riot somehow believes that bonfire is important enough for the history books. After all, their own lives have been a cascade of repetition and practised boredom, percolated with messages that their lives truly matter and are important.

They have to believe this. The alternative is to grapple with their obvious and inescapable insignificance. To struggle with the terror of a life not lived, followed by the never-ending days of being dead.

One day they will ask those questions, but because they live behind a frame any answers will be weak and wrong. They will instead claw for something, anything, to assuage the existential terror. They won't know the answers are lies because they've never seen the truth. "I am so Tweeting that!" Sigh...


Psychotherapist Otto Rank says the central fear of life is the fear of separation and individuation, the fear of becoming an individual. Conversely, fear of death is the fear of the loss of individuality. Considering Sontag and Rank together, we realise that Twitter, whatever the social or political benefits, is fundamentally a symptom of a greater neurotic condition: the fear of being absolutely present in one’s own life.

Be careful with mediating reality through Twitter, photography or a blog. It is an abstraction away from life because to experience life directly is too personal, perhaps too intensely stressful or too intensely joyful. The civil war never stood a chance in this environment. Come one person, come ten million people, it doesn’t matter. The only thing with any power is Twitter’s algorithms.

Everyone in those crowds uses the Twitterverse to obviate their understandable fear and anxiety over a violent political action. Standing there in the maelstrom is to be forced to comprehend their acutely vulnerable individual selves – small, bewildered and powerless. Completely at the mercy of human forces no modern American really understands.

What can we make of this call for revolution and civil war? This is tension, sure, but what threat does this pose to the system? A reset is not a revolution. A revolution is a criminal conspiracy in which murderous, deranged adventurers capture a state for their arbitrary, and usually sinister, purposes. A reset is only a restoration of secure, effective and responsible government in which the status quo remains.

Of course, a failed reset can degenerate into a revolution. No doubt many involved in the rise to power of Hitler and Mussolini thought of their project as a reset. They were quite mistaken. And it's important to understand that virtually the entire mainstream of political and social discourse today is radical and revolutionary by historical standards. But the tension cannot build if it is constantly dissipated by smartphones.

The protests will fail. They will eventually be co-opted by the media, branded as either this team or that and assigned leaders no one would ever pick, ever. The reason it will fail is that none of the participants want it to succeed. They are still holding on to the economic delusion that the 1990s can be reinvigorated. They can’t. It’s over.

“We want more jobs!” yells one side. “We want free education!” yells the other. Double the taxes, triple the taxes, it makes no difference. It’s over. Aside from inflation, the only answers are a new war or cold fusion. And inflation has the side benefit of pushing the rioters into a higher tax bracket and everyone will be able to see what a $US1000 bill looks like. You want change? Throw away the damn iPhone.

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