August 26, 2008

August 25, 2008


The horserace is back! And once again I am absolutely stunned at just how bad Charlie Rose is. Constant interruptions, inane questions, and locker room guffawing. Does anyone else think Rose is severely conceptually challenged? But rather than wonder how a stooge could ever run his own PBS talk show, interviewing for over two decades heads of state and wealthy corporate stiffs as well as lesser politerati and celebrities, I remind myself once again just how utterly incapable the mainstream media is in being able to talk openly and frankly about politics.

Sure there are times when editorial control insists on tightly scripted confines whenever it comes to the possibility that reporting the truth will implicate or expose corporate sponsors – or whoever else may be breathing down the necks of journalists. Yet more prevalent is the internalization by journalists and those in the news business of the professional standards and political norms of those they ostensibly “cover.” I mean, do we really expect professional mainstream journalists to jeopardize their job by speaking truth to power if it will cause dismay and unease in editors and superiors? In short, the culture of political journalism, (at least within the mainstream mass medias,) is defined by co-optation into politics-as-usual. It can be subtle but it is downright irresistible. Thus journalists who painfully cling to what they consider “objectivity” somehow come to believe that it’s their job not to piss anyone off - no matter what may or may not have happened that day. And who better for this than sleepy Jim Lehrer and his gang? So rather than learn much about Presidential candidates, growing poverty, single-payer health care, American expansion abroad, ties to lobbyists, media consolidation, or how DC claims to “work” on our behalf, we get more he-said she-said journalism, towing the party line, countless evasions, and trivial “predictions” which are to somehow pass for serious in-depth analysis.
But most importantly, as the last several years have shown, the whole “news” discourse has absolutely lost all credibility whatsoever – and not just because of lies and complicity but because news outfits have compromised themselves completely by becoming the mere display of banter, the spectacle of “news.” And the problem is not just Fox News and Chris Mathews. Today the medias are the event, as hobnobbing reporters and pundits obsessed with access and proximity end up losing themselves to collusions with political celebrities and players by lobbing predictable questions, and spinning out competing soundbytes and bogus representations. And if the pundit class is to ever assume the role of “watchdog,” or even attempt at “getting tough” as it no doubt ritually does during election season, it hones in on gaffes and trivial innuendos to taint "personal character," and, in effect, show a “debate” that they are tenaciously part of. How else could Stephanopoulos go from top Clinton strategist buddy of James Carville – himself husband to GOP top spinner Mary Matalin– to political junkie superstar?
Still the exchanges are all too superficial and slap-dash to actually mean anything to anybody. The public knows it is all bullshit, or, at the very least, meaningless though often entertaining information that they can effectually do absolutely nothing about. What else are people to do when white guys with gravitas dressed in suits, alongside their distinguished madams of the television talk circuits, tell them incessantly about violence and theft after the usual feel-good segments of cats up trees and 30 second spots for credit cards and deodorant? And when it comes time for the audiences to form an opinion about someone, say, running for office, they base their judgments on the simulation of "personal" qualities, (much as they do with any celebrity,) which are typically displayed through a "subtext" that political campaigns and the media get to spin continually.
What is especially fascinating about media culture in the United States is that audiences often end up looking for some way to make the programming about them – and, to emphasize the importance of this point, it cannot be forgotten that the mass media, (all advertisers in fact,) know this. Consuming the various semiotic codes and visual templates enables audiences to cultivate their own performances in “real life.” In this respect TV is ultimately about us. Because when people feel powerless they ultimately have no recourse other than to personalize the experience, and develop semiotic and interactive strategies to better negotiate their own lives, their opinions, their living rooms, their family, hygiene, careers, etc. Advertisements and popular culture certainly mobilize people in very specific yet often predictable ways. But they also cater to civic indifference and political estrangement. This odd dualism, at its scariest, consists of state power and flag waving despite deep political resignation.
Television provides the spectacle which feeds off “the reality” that there is no reference point exogenous to the mediated world. Anything truly newsworthy, “real life” even, only simulates all that we know to have disappeared: the intrepid journalist, democracy, justice, the public, political accountability, and the good-samaritan. "Authenticity" will be in the air this week coming out of the mouths of those inhabiting a hollow self-reflecting dome of mirrors and fog.

August 13, 2008

MySpace Pokes Max Weber via Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin’s “close-ups” amidst what he believed to be the “revolutionary” developments in reproductive technologies have only led to the glamorization of the subject. Even if cinematic technologies had once facilitated a Marxist polemic, as Benjamin believed they ultimately could, (a la Battleship Potemkin,) they have also been employed to project ad hoc amalgams of Freudian and existential angst, Christian sublimation, nationalism, bourgeois consumer culture, and, Benjamin’s greatest fear, fascism. Ordinarily we know cinema to revel in bone sapping sentimentalism, interpersonal intrigue, and the vulgar “realism” of car chases and violence. The bombardment of visuals and advertisements in an "attention-deficit" culture, more generally, only makes the cult of subjectivity easy. So visual technologies can certainly dramatize the banal events we know so well; and they can do so to such gargantuan extent that they have only solipsistic value for audiences. At such moments, we are left literally speechless.

Even when technological means are distributed amongst the populace they do not at all demonstrate their own emancipatory imperatives. At the minimum they can be said to brandish the accoutrements of power, as they spread the hype of “plugging in” and getting “connected.” Here Benjamin knew technology could also easily be appropriated by the likes of Riefenstahl, (and if he were around, perhaps Oliver Stone too.) It is difficult to forget that existing industries have vested interests in existing technologies, as well as in the cultural and political regimes supporting them. We can only hope that technological advances will enable us to speak and think intelligently, not so that we are constantly immersed in petty gossip about our middle-class lives, but so that we can open and share political space.

Of course, most any meaningful exercise of political action will inevitably imply a mediated presence. The worry however should be that it will get mired in photo-ops, and spin-out in all sorts of ways from public enemy numero uno to glossy celebrity narcissism. Obamamania is an obvious example, as is Angelina and Brad. The ultimate end, as Max Weber would have stressed, is that those who are to truly practice the political "vocation," must ultimately commit everyday to waging a countervailing political action. So yes, the ability to speak and think in soundbytes, along with online fundraising, would have to become part of the craft. Medias today are the event, or so it seems, in the world of Nuzak. But the gesinnungspolitiker would also have to somehow resist and deny his or her own self-glamorization, even in spite of the technologies and networks advancing it. What Weber referred to as the "duty" of "genuine political leadership" was not so much to adapt to existing conditions but to fight for something held to be extremely valuable, and to ultimately resuscitate the virtues and skills of civic action. Though Weber's elitist laments may not exactly be democratic they provide insights into what democratic politics needs today.