Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Art of the Impossible: How Post-Truth Doubt Hypnotized Us

“Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable  the art of the next best thing.” – Otto Von Bismarck 
“Politics is the entertainment branch of industry.” – Frank Zappa
Throughout the crucible of recorded history, politics has always undergone a dramatic shift in form, focus and intent with each new technological development. But today, its very core definition has practically altered beyond recognition since the advent of the digital domain we currently inhabit. Towards the end of the 20th century, a century of the most drastically amplified creative inventiveness and the most viscerally enhanced horrors, approximately around 1998, in fact, we entered a realm almost as theatrically shape-shifted as the transition from the medieval period to the so-called Renaissance. Technics, the skillful utility of tools, has always been the hallmark for every decisive change in our concept of reality as sentient beings. Now, however, reality has blurred irrevocably.

In many respects in fact, we are either still in the late Renaissance proper, or else perhaps even odder, still in the late Medieval era per se. The Renaissance itself, we should always remember, was largely an advertising campaign for the Medici family, one whose glittering product, liberal progress, is still always up in the air. It may always have been only a chimera, a mirage, a beautiful propaganda campaign selling a new psychological product.

This is a very fragile condition made all the more palpable with the recent American election of a practitioner of what used to be quaintly referred to as realpolitik. We therefore need to re-think realpolitik in light of recent and current developments both socially and technologically. Reality and its reflective presence in social life and politics suddenly became utterly interchangeable.

Indeed, a cultural collision course was detected last year. The culture of politics and the politics of culture became somewhat synonymous in a manner never before witnessed in history, with the possible exception of the Crusades or Inquisition. What had formerly been operating at an unconscious level, each domain mirroring the other in subtle and subliminal ways, now surfaced in an alarmingly conscious way, with pop culture and politics both filtered through the same hyperactive and hypersensitive digital equipment of perception and reflection simultaneously, and with no period of digestion required or desired.

Jocelyn Noveck recently observed in The Vancouver Sun that “[o]ur politics are often reflected in our popular culture, and vice versa – especially in [a U.S.] election year. That relationship seemed closer than ever in 2016, when a TV personality was elected president [and] reality shows and beauty contests were referenced in presidential debates.”

I would go further and suggest that such a collision course has passed a kind of event horizon in the digital world, where culture doesn’t just reflect politics but politics actually refracts culture beyond the point where we can recognize the distinction between the two. Therefore, while my first response to the dilemma of whether politics is even possible in the digital world was a definite no, for reasons that seem obvious, my second, more considered response is a qualified yes, for reasons that are slightly more obscure.

Politics is possible, but we won’t be able to recognize it as something we have defined as politics for about the last 300 years or so. I will also suggest that the tectonic social and cultural shifts of technology have already been impacting the political stage ever since the printing press arrived, a powerful force field of intersecting interests and agendas which has only exploded exponentially with the arrival of the internet. It is an immaterial phantom press.

In this regard, two relatively recent books provide some salient insights into the challenges we all face as either participants in or victims of the political drama. How Propaganda Works by Jason Stanley, published by Princeton University Press, and The Glass Cage: Automation and Us by Nicholas Carr, published by W.W. Norton, both alert us to a phenomenon that has been staring us in the face since the advent of both digital technology and social media, as well as the rise of populist sentiments such as those espoused by the new President of America: politics and public opinion are now indistinguishable cornerstones of the quivering edifice of entertainment.

In her review for The New York Times of Stanley’s book, Michiko Kakutani observed wryly that effective propaganda appeals to the feelings of the public rather than to their reasoning ability; relies on stereotyped formulas repeated over and over again to drum ideas into the masses; and uses simple ‘love or hate,' 'right or wrong’ formulations to assail the enemy while making intentionally biased and one-sided arguments.

Stanley writes effectively about the inherent dangers to democracies from self-produced propaganda in an especially pertinent way, given the profusion of fake political news and misinformation on digital media today. “The subject couldn’t be more relevant, [....] given a public with a voracious appetite for scandal and entertainment, coupled with media outlets obsessed with ratings and clicks; Russian meddling in the 2016 [presidential] campaign and [this] year’s European elections; and a president-elect who has stoked the fears and grievances of supporters, and who frequently flip-flops and sows twit-like confusion by tweet.”

It is not my intention in this essay to take a position for or against President Trump, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that as a Canadian I am a foreign observer with limited stakes. However, as a culture critic who is claiming that the culture of politics reveals it to be yet another living artifact (similar in many respects to a painting, a poem, a song, a play, a dance, a novel, etc.), I am indeed observing that the digital arena which “the machine” has built up for itself around us has rendered actual politics, the movement towards action through compromise and consensus, almost literally impossible and has instead replaced it with the soap opera we are witnessing daily on a global stage that is no longer a physical battlefield but is instead one existing solely in cyberspace, shimmering on our pixilated screens.

This new landscape, first predicted so brilliantly by Marshall McLuhan in 1960, and envisioned even earlier in many key respects by the German theorist Walter Benjamin in 1936, is the domain which I have identified as a cyber-arcade, the principal product of which is cyberkitsch: a profusion of copies without an original. Stanley has also focused our attention on the stereotype phenomenon, especially when riven by extremely polarized positions, as “social scripts that guide us through the world, make sense of it and legitimate our actions within it. They affect the information we acquire via perception and they resist revision (by the presentation of contradictory facts or logical argument) because they are emotionally connected to our identity and help legitimize previously held beliefs.”

In other words, he explains, propaganda  especially the kind inculcated by democracies, which provides a simple, convenient narrative architecture for processing events  thrives in a polarized environment in which truth is regarded as relativistic and facts are treated as fungible. “It is also how reality-distorting propaganda undermines the reasoned deliberation that is so essential to a democracy.”

The very cyberkitsch function which makes any actual politics of openly exchanged ideas impossible, due to the reality distorting performances on a global digital theatrical stage which takes place in our own living rooms, bedrooms or offices, is the effect of its own cause.

As Kakutani astutely concluded, “Demagogic speech in democracies often uses language that purports to support democratic ideals (liberty, equality and objective reason) in 'the service of undermining these ideals.'” Pace Trump.

As a culture critic my role is to explicate both works of art and the cultures which create them, not from the usual judgmental point of view that assesses success or failure from the relative angle of aesthetics but from the phenomenological vantage point of encountering those works of art as what they actually are: embodied meanings.

I often interpret whole cultures, and even whole civilizations, as if they were individual works of art, because that is precisely what they are. Such a comparative approach allows us to utterly preclude issues such as liking or disliking the relative features of works in any medium, or using our limited time and energy to declare the success or failure of their maker’s intentions. Works of art, whether they are visual, architectural, literary, musical, or durational, are all dark mirrors of the consciousness that created them. So is politics just such a dark mirror.

We are therefore free to more fully experience the degree to which drastically different kinds of art objects, of embodied meanings, are really the immediate sense data reflections of the consciousness of the particular cultural context within which they were created. None is superior or inferior in kind, apart from the accumulated aesthetic, psychic and spiritual assumptions of its culture.

In this essay, I am suggesting that political parties, positions and programs are also embodied meanings, and are all highly reflective of the societies in which they occur.

As such, the technics which can alter the landscape of public political interactions and transactions can also themselves undergo dramatically assertive transformations as a result of the technological mediums in which they are transmitted. In other words, the medium is the message, as the prescient culture and media critic Marshall McLuhan concluded over half a century ago.

Those of us who work in the cultural industries have long been aware that the arena of politics is yet another industry in which a proposed product, that of freedom of choice and the material manifestation of shared values, has always been a nebulous artifact.

Once we recognize that politics is also an embodied meaning, one which takes on an animated life of its own as a result of the power of technology, we can also become aware that the politics of choice is no longer operational in quite the same way we formerly understood it to be. Thus equally important from my perspective is the line of reasoning explored by Nicholas Carr in his book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us.

Carr observes the obvious, that we hardly do anything anymore without the “aid” of computers but have also noticed that automation frees us from that which makes us feel free, and he rhetorically asks whether this is the world which we thought or imagined that we wanted to build for ourselves. Disengaged and discontented, we nonetheless have assumed political positions that are evermore entrenched and irreconcilably extreme in the service of set of automated masters which no early Industrial Revolution Luddite could ever have imagined.

It’s often useful to remember that the misunderstood term "Luddite" does not refer to a person who doesn’t understand technics and the machine and how to use them, or is innocently befuddled by them, but rather to one who -- like the original Luddite, Ned Ludd, a young textile apprentice who allegedly smashed two stocking frames in 1779 and whose name has become emblematic of machine destroyers -- wanted them to simply go away.

But they couldn’t, and they can’t, and they won’t. Since they themselves are now largely in command of our own perceptual faculties.

The groups that formed in Ludd’s name were protesting the use of machinery in a fraudulent or deceitful manner to get around standard labour practices. One common misconception of the Luddites is that they protested against machinery itself in a vain attempt to halt the progress of technology.

As a result of this error, the term has come to mean those opposed to industrialization, automation, computerization or new technologies in general. One reasonable application of the term today could be not someone who is confused by or afraid of technology but rather one with a distaste for the misuse of it to unfairly alter the course of people’s lives. This sounds particularly pertinent in light of the recent presidential election and the strange flow of new digital “information” daily across the globe. Indeed, even more pertinent for the purposes of elaborating my theme are two other equally important pieces of writing that should be read by anyone seeking a clear picture of how we go to where we are today. Wherever that is.

The first is by Walter Benjamin in 1936, and is called "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," though it is often translated from the original German as ‘in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility.’ The second is from 1948, by the Swiss historian Sigfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History. The former examines the impact of mechanized images on aesthetics and art, and also, I will argue, on the culture of political discourse; the latter studies the impacts of mechanization in general on the elements of everyday life, including, I will argue, our political theatre.

The latter examines how the environment we call reality was forever altered once mechanization dramatically took command of our choices and lives.

Most notably, it will be revealed that the now antiquated concept elaborated by a historical figure like Bismarck, an arena of compromise and making the best of what consensus both allows us and limits us to do in the field of actions, has collided headlong with a quite different reality.

This second layer of reality is contained in the ironic observation of the avant-garde American composer and satirist Frank Zappa, and hinges on his notion of politics as pure theatre of cruelty, an enterprise which Antonin Artaud once dreamt of in strictly surrealist terms but which has since usurped our everyday reality in astonishing ways.

So once again we consider this chestnut: politics is the art of the possible. Danny Choriki, of The Humanist Society, commented in 2014: 
Only an ideologue would argue with this notion. Even a sociopath who was in it for power and power only would find a middle way some of the time, as that is how they would stay in power. People in the political system who insist on their way or nothing are dangerous on a number of levels. Rarely are these positions based on data or evidence or science. They are usually based on a notion of what is best for everyone based on beliefs. The only time this works out is if you are trying to bring the system down. 
True believers often demonize the opposition. They work in sound bites reducing the complexity of reality to a five-word sentence. 
The biggest enemy of the true believer isn't the true believer on the other side, it is the moderate, the people in the middle, the person trying to get something done to move the issue forward. True believers hate those who would ever compromise.
Sound familiar? Eric Hoffer said much the same thing in 1951.

Douglas Alexander also made some useful observations in The New Stateman in December of 2015, reminding us that “realpolitik is one of those words borrowed from another language that is much used but little understood.”

The word originates with German journalist Ludwig von Rochau in his 1853 treatise “Principles of Realpolitik," in which he contrasted Idealpolitik, which he felt achieved little, with Realpolitik, which doesn’t consider its task the realization of ideals but rather the attainment of concrete ends, of actuality in other words.

My point is that in today’s relativistic and extremely polarized post-truth digital world, the compromise and consensus required for understanding historical circumstances necessary to effect actual change (such as in the Middle East conflict between Israel and its neighbours, for instance) becomes more and more impossible, since it involves a zero-sum game without hope for resolution. Alexander reminds us that the original understanding of von Rochau’s Realpolotik “reminds us of the messy business of politics and all the tributaries that flow into it. Rochau looked at the mechanics of states and societies  the nuts and bolts that made them up  rather than at the physics of the international system.”

In my writing I am interested in pursuing an even deeper level, the quantum-mechanics level of appreciating the impact of digital technologies on the realm of the culture machines that produce political products.

In addition to the prior insights mentioned, Daniel Choriki also produced a remarkable TED Talk called The Science Behind the Politics of Fear which explored in a startlingly prescient manner in 2015 the mechanics of fear as used in the political arena. He even claimed that the politics of fear predates human civilization and its methods range from direct forms of physical violence and social ostracism to the inferred threat from “outsiders” and rapid change to the accepted status quo as arbiters of “true” and shared community values.

To this extent it is remarkably insightful when applied to the kind of digital chicanery which I have suggested makes the traditional definition of politics impossible to sustain as a workable model. To say that Bismarck’s insight has been misunderstood is, of course, an understatement, given the dictatorial mode of thought surrounding his name.

But Frank Zappa’s ironic insight has often been equally misunderstood, if only because as a popular musician he would have been discounted as speaking outside his realm of expertise. This, however, would be a drastic error, since much of his music was actually a serious social and cultural commentary on the dynamics of politics disguised within the parameters of a so-called counter-culture project housed inside the architecture of contemporary entertainment.

And it is only now, almost twenty years after the death of the agent provocateur Zappa, that a domestic political movement, that of the extreme populist Republicans, has arisen in a digital climate which suddenly makes his observation seem chillingly accurate and all the more alarming. It brings to mind not only one of his most quirky songs, “It Can’t Happen Here,” with a title borrowed from an equally prescient 1935 by the American novelist Sinclair Lewis. Placed side by side, that song and the novel that inspired it have proven amazingly prophetic. Imagine that.

– Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Spring 2018.

1 comment:

  1. "In his review for The New York Times of Stanley’s book, Michiko Kakutani"

    Kakutani happens to be female.