#thedress for journalism educators

Black and Blue? Gold and White? What does #thedress mean for journalism educators?

The Dress Buzzfeed
Original Buzzfeed post has now had 38 million views.

At the time of writing, the original Buzzfeed post has just under over 38m visitors and 3.4m people have voted in poll at the bottom of the post. Slate created a landing page, aggregating all their posts including a live blog. Cosmo copied Buzzfeed. Time produced a quick post that included a cool little audio slideshowWired published a story on the science of why people see the wrong colours (white and gold). How can we use this in our teaching?

Nearly every single student in my big Introduction to Journalism lecture knew what I was talking about when I mentioned #thedress. I used it as a simple example to illustrate some core concepts for operating in a multi-platform or convergent news-based media  environment.

Multi-Platform Media Event

Journalists used to be trained to develop professional expertise in one platform. Until very recently this included radio, television or print and there was a period from the early to mid-2000s when ‘online’ existed as a fourth category. Now ‘digital’-modes of communication are shaping almost all others. We’ve moved from a ‘platform only’ approach to a ‘platform first’ approach — so that TV journalists also produces text or audio, writers produce visuals, an so on — and what is called a ‘multi-platform’ (or ‘digital first’, ‘convergent’ or ‘platform free’) approach.

When with think ‘multi-platform’, we think about how the elements of a story will be delivered across media channels or platforms:

  • Live – presentations
  • Social – Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc.
  • Web – own publishing platform, podcast, video, etc.
  • Mobile – specific app or a mobile-optimised website
  • Television – broadcast, narrowcast stream, etc.
  • Radio – broadcast, digital, etc.
  • Print – ‘publication’

‘Platform’ is the word we use to describe the social and technological relation between a producer and a consumer of a certain piece of media content in the act of transmission or access. In a pre-digital world, transmission or delivery were distinct from what was transmitted.

Thinking in terms of platforms also incorporates how we ‘operate’ or ‘engage’ with content via an ‘interface’ and so on. Most Australians get their daily news from the evening broadcast television news bulletin. Recent figures indicate that most people aged 18-24 actually get their news about politics and elections from online and SNS sources, compared to broadcast TV.

#thedress is a multi-platform media event. It began on Tumblr and then quickly spread via the Buzzfeed post to Twitter and across various websites belonging to news-based media enterprises.  It only makes sense if the viral, mediated character of the event is taken into account.  #thedress media event did not simply propagate, it spread at different rates and at different ways. The amplification effect of celebrities meant #thedress propagated across networks that are different orders of magnitude in scale. Viral is a mode of distribution, but it also produces relations of visibility/exposure.

New News and Old News Conventions

Consumers of news on any platform expect the conventions of established news journalism. What are the conventions of established news journalism?

  • The inverted pyramid
  • The lead/angle
  • Sourcing/attribution
  • Grammar: Active Voice, Tense
  • Punctuation
  • Sentence structure
  • Word use
  • Fairness

When we look at #thedress multi-platform media event we see different media outlets covered the story in different ways. Time magazine wrote the most conventional lead out of any that I have seen; the media event is the story:

Everyone on the Internet Wants to Know What Color This Dress Is
The Internet took a weird turn Thursday when all of a sudden everyone started buzzing about the color of a dress. A woman had taken to Tumblr the day before to ask a seemingly normal question: what color is this dress?

Cosmopolitan largely mediated between the two, both framing the story as an investigation into colour, but also reporting on the virality of the multi-platform media event:

Help Solve the Internet’s Most Baffling Mystery: What Colors Are This Dress?
Blue and black? Or white and gold?
If you think you know what colors are in this dress, you are probably wrong. If you think you’re right, someone on the Internet is about to vehemently disagree with you, because no one can seem to agree on what colors these are.

I’ve only include the head, intro and first par for Time and Cosmo and you can see already they are far more verbose compared to Buzzfeed’s original post. The original Buzzfeed post rearticulated a Tumblr post, but with one important variation:

What Colors Are This Dress?
There’s a lot of debate on Tumblr about this right now, and we need to settle it.
This is important because I think I’m going insane.
Tumblr user swiked uploaded this image.
[Image]
There’s a lot of debate about the color of the dress.
[Examples]
So let’s settle this: what colors are this dress?
68% White and Gold
32% Blue and Black

The Buzzfeed post added an ‘action’: the poll at the bottom of the post. Why is this important?

Buzzfeed, Tumblr and the Relative Value of a Page View

Buzzfeed COO Jon Steinberg addressed the question of the Buzzfeed business model by posting a link to this article back in 2010:

Some of its sponsored “story unit” ad units have clickthrough rates as high as 4% to 5%, with an average around 1.5% to 2%, BuzzFeed President Jon Steinberg says. (That’s better than the roughly 1% clickthrough rate Steinberg says he thought was good for search ads when he worked at Google.) BuzzFeed’s smaller, thumbnail ad units have clickthrough rates around 0.25%.

The main difference now is the importance of mobile. In a 2013 post to LinkedIN Steinberg wrote:

At BuzzFeed our mobile traffic has grown from 20% of monthly unique visitors to 40% in under a year. I see no reason why this won’t go to 70% or even 80% in couple years.

Importantly, Buzzfeed’s business model is still organised around displaying what used to be called ‘custom content’ and what is now commonly referred to as ‘native advertising’ or even ‘content marketing’ when it is a longer piece (like these Westpac sponsored posts at Junkee).

Buzzfeed
Image via Jon Steinberg, LinkedIN

On the other hand, Tumblr is a visual platform; users are encouraged to post, favourite and reblog all kinds of content, but mostly images. For example, .gif-based pop-culture subcultures thrive on tumblr and tumblr icons are those that perform gestures that are easily turned into gifs (Taylor Swift) or static images (#thedress).The new owners of Tumblr, Yahoo, are struggling to commercialise Tumblr’s booming popularity.

I had a discussion with the Matt Liddy and Rosanna Ryan on Twitter this morning about the relative value of the 73 million views of the original Tumblr post versus the value of the 38 million views of the Buzzfeed post. Trying to make sense of what is of value in all this is tricky. At first glance the 73 million views of the original Tumblr post trumps the almost 38 million views of the Buzzfeed post, but how has Tumblr commercialised the relationship between users of the site and content? There is no clear commercialised relationship.

Buzzfeed’s business model is premised on a high click-through rate for their ‘native advertising’. Of key importance in all this is the often overlooked poll at the bottom of the Buzzfeed post. Almost 38 million or even 73 million views pales in comparison to the 3.4 million votes in the poll. Around 8.6% of the millions of people who visited the Buzzfeed article performed an action when they got there. This may not seem as impressive an action as those 483.2 thousand Tumblr uses that reblogged #thedress post, but the difference is that Buzzfeed has a business model that has commercialised performing an action (click-through), while Tumblr has not.

Rough Notes on the Techno-Aesthetics of Cattle

Other permutations of the title of this post could have been techno-aesthetics of ‘living standards’ or techno-aesthetics of ‘the future’.

Mike Konczal’s piece in The New Inquiry on the work of ‘standardization’ in processes of ‘financialization’ was shared across my social networks the other day. In it he suggests that financial markets have in part attempted to solve a thousands of years old philosophical problem:

Are there only particular, individual, material things out there, with generic names arising only from social conventions? Or are there ideal Platonic universal entities, which exist separately from individual iterations of them? The financial system that has evolved in the past 150 years alongside capitalism in part attempts to resolve this question.

Hogwash.

Konscal tells an interesting story of the process through which the phenomena of standardising previously non-standardised goods meant that these goods could be traded on financial markets.  Does the process of standardising a good therefore lead to the material embodiment of a Platonic ideal? No, of course not.

Konscal’s argument is more sophisticated than this because it is concerned with relations between the present and the future. The Platonic ideal of standardised cattle does not exist in the present but on the edge of the present in the traded-future.

Let’s look at the Chicago Mercentile Exchange’s rulebook for a Live Cattle Future, specifically the legal content for what qualifies as a “deliverable” cattle. First off, “No individual animal weighing less than 1,050 pounds or more than 1,500 pounds” shall be deliverable as a cattle. “Unmerchantable” cattle, such as those that are “crippled, sick, obviously damaged or bruised,” are not acceptable. Graders are on standby to ensure that these judgments are satisfactorily made.

Pick any other commodity, and you’ll find the contract that similarly marks what the ideal form of it should be. […]

The system of standardization in futures contracts resolved the particular into the general and came to be heralded as a major financial innovation. The name of the thing produced the thing, rather than the thing producing the name: nominalism vs. realism solved.

‘Ideal form’ in the sense of a Platonic ideal form? Nope.

Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Falsity” takes aim with this problem, of the relation between the infinite variability of actual materiality and the anthropomorphic drive for ‘truth’ in speech and ‘ideas’ or what in this context Konscal calls a ‘standard’. Ideas do not originate from an ideal, but through a process of equating the unequal:

Every word becomes at once an idea not by having, as one might presume, to serve as a reminder for the original experience happening but once and absolutely individualised, to which experience such word owes its origin, no, but by having simultaneously to fit innumerable, more or less similar (which really means never equal, therefore altogether unequal) cases. Every idea originates through equating the unequal. […]

The disregarding of the individual and real furnishes us with the idea, as it like-wise also gives us the form ; whereas nature knows of no forms and ideas, and therefore knows no species but only an x, to us inaccessible and indefinable. For our antithesis of individual and species is anthropomorphic too and does not come from the essence ‘ of things, although on the other hand we do not dare to say that it does not correspond to it ; for that would be a dogmatic assertion and as such just as undemonstrable as its contrary. […]

His procedure is to apply man as the measure of all things, whereby he starts from the error of believing that he has these things immediately before him as pure objects. He therefore forgets that the original metaphors of perception are metaphors, and takes them for the things themselves.

Most interpretations of Nietzsche have focused on what is called the implicit ‘perspectivism’ of his position on truth. I am interested in the non-anthropomorphic “original experience happening but once and absolutely individualised” and how this relates to what Duns Scotus called a ‘haecceity’ and Gilbert Simondon called a process of individuation. One aspect of individuation often forgotten is that it describes not just an ‘individual’ (a person, a cow, anything) but also the ‘environment’ or context within which the individual is individuated. One way to interpret this is through what Simondon called an analysis of the relation between an individual and environment techno-aesthetics.

Techno-aesthetics attends not to the aesthetics of forms (ideal or otherwise) but the regularity of singular points through which the individual-environment relation is composed and the individual individuated. In related work Simondon explored the very long historical shifts that led to the emergence of technology and religion from a “primitive magical unity” as the the human being’s first mode of being. Primitive Magical Unity is characterised by an immobile connection of singular way-points, embodied in mountains and the like, whereby the mountain serves as a conduit to an extra-human realm. Religion produces a new ground, while Technology mobilises the singular-relation itself and Technicity is a kind of embodied relational index of this process.

The techno-aesthetics of cattle futures is not concerned with the ideal form of cattle as discursively embodied in legal rules but with, firstly, the existing (past) process of individuation through which cattle are individuated and, secondly, the way in which ‘futures’ serve as a connection between this existing (past) process of individuation and another future process of individuation. Experience-based knowledges are implicit here, so for example an expect ‘cattle reader’ can read the process of individuation off a given herd of cattle

What is the second process of individuation? It is the deployment of the cattle as socio-technology to individuate a set of relations that we call a ‘market’. Traders of cattle futures do not want ‘ideal cattle’ they want an instrument that allows them to pursue the individuation of a second market that will ‘consume’ the cattle (in reality, they are merely just the next linkage in a series of Latour’s mediators). Inherent to all this is a legally sanctioned form of trust, which Nietzsche suggested underpins the evolution of ‘truth’. Massumi describes the affective dimension of this connection between two processes of individuation an ‘operational linkage’. Consumers are caught up in this process too, as the flipside of the individuated market. The consumers’ affective relation is talked about in economics as ‘confidence’. 

I am being an aleatory materialist here. There is no ‘ideal’ anything. 

Konscal of course recognises this, in particular when he turns his attention to the failed attempt to ‘financialise’ toxic home loans:

Not only were these contracts designed to make the bad-mortgage future, they were also ill-prepared for the contingencies they pretended to tame and master. When the housing market collapsed, the creators of these contracts lacked the thorough knowledge of the mortgage contracts within them—highly individualized relations between lenders and borrowers, each with their own nuances—that would have been necessary to recover some of their value.

In this context the risk/opportunity nexus serves as the operational-linkage between (at least) two processes of individuation. What Konscal has isolated is not the apparent attempt of bankers to ‘solve’ a many thousands year old problem of ideational ontology, but the specific failure of bankers to, firstly, appreciate the process of individuation by which ‘risks’ (and, by extension ‘opportunities’) are created, and secondly, even if they did appreciate this, they lacked the operational “knowledge of the […] highly individualized relations between lenders and borrowers, each with their own nuances”. Or as Konscal puts it more bluntly: “They proved to be farmers who couldn’t tell cows from cow shit.”

Nihilist Pop Culture: Consumed by the Insignificant

What I am now going to relate is the history of the next two centuries. I shall describe what will happen, what must necessarily happen: the triumph of Nihilism. (Friedrich Nietzsche, Will to Power)

One of my goals for the course is to render students incapable of watching TV and film in the passive, mildly vegetative state to which they are accustomed. […] The inability of people to be affected by things like that, a general apathy with regard to things happening outside their immediate frame of reference, is terrifying. This class is about a society consumed by the insignificant. (Thomas Hibbs, Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from ‘The Exorcist’ to ‘Seinfeld’.)

We need more nihilist popular culture

Writing in Havard’s undergraduate student newspaper about the film Se7en, David H. Goldbrenner, argues that nihilistic popular culture is damaging:

This is why nihilistic pop culture and art are so detrimental.  They help perpetuate the most damaging and destructive attitude that a free and democratic society can hold:  that life is not worth living and that all our efforts will eventually lead to pain and disappointment.  The most frustrating aspect of this is that often such thought is not expressed genuinely but rather because it will shock and entertain and earn a profit.

This is born of common (and often religious) interpretation of nihilism; that it is a state of social being without transcendental values; transcendental values include ‘objectivity’, ‘morality’ and various political manifestations. I suggest everyone reads Nietzsche’s Will to Power, in particular the first sections on nihilism, for two reasons. Firstly, for critics of nihilism, Nietzsche is clearly the primary enemy. Secondly, ‘nihilism’ is not some fantastical apprehension of existential meaninglessness; or it is, but this observation has become banal. We cannot escape from nihilism. Therefore, it is necessary to go to war or fall in love, at least in an existential sense.

To help contemporary audiences when reading Neitzsche, I suggest that you imagine you are reading a blog of someone who you suspect to be mildly insane.

For Nietzsche, as he writes in the preface, nihilism is a historical passage of development through which future societies shall necessarily pass. This is not like Marx’s historical determinism; Nietzsche is instead suggesting it shall be born of its own advent. That is, there shall be an intuitive or qualitative leap whereby the European Nihilist (aka Nietzsche) “has already outlived the Nihilism in his own soul — who has outgrown, overcome, and dismissed it.” Neitzsche’s Will to Power should therefore be read as a guide: How To Survive Nihilism.

The species of nihilism that Neitzsche wrote about in the late-nineteenth now has siblings. To think nihilism as an event (of society, of social relations, of the mind and in bodies) is to appreciate how it can be repeated in different ways. I want to explore the contemporary nihilism evident in popular culture and the culture of the popular. I want to think through both meanings of the phrase “society consumed by the insignificant”: a preoccupation with the trivial and the consumption of society itself.

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Utopia5

The Birth of Expectation

To appreciate the repetition of nihilism means to aske the question, from where does nihilism emerge? Before nihilism, there are only transcendental values. Transcendental values serve as an antidote against practical and theoretical nihilism. In Nietzsche’s era these were primarily Christian values of morality (WtP, pages 8-9). I don’t think this is the case anymore.

Now it is a more complex question, worthy of our developments in the sciences and arts, of predictive extrapolations from the present (algorithmic or otherwise)[1. Witness the 2012 US Presidential election and the battle of data-driven expectations between the two major parties. One was governed by providing the correct answers and the other by asking the correct answers. In both cases the future was furnished with a certain kind of expectation that governed the present.] and governed by expectation:

  1. Transcendental values bestow an intrinsic value upon the world, including the values of humans and anything else. Liberal humanism is a derivation of this.[2. It is what Helen Razer is writing against, in part, in her piece about feminism.] It means you only have to believe and not do any work in appreciating structures of valorisation that everday life enters into as a kind of ritualised gladitorial combat. Everyday our values slay the meaninglessness of its own battle first and then every other violence posed by the question.
  2. There is an unthinking simplicity to the perfection produced by transcendental values. The perfection here is of a particular order. It is not the perfection of neoplatonic forms.[3. For example, there is no such thing as ’roundness’ or a ‘curve’. A circle is a series of points equidistant from another point. There is no ‘circle’ to represent the perfection of ’roundness’.] The purest expression of this in the contemporary state of affairs is the utter stupidity of justification via expectation: “What else do you expect?” This is ironically lampooning of the use of ‘shock’ in journalistic headlines: “Politician in Lying Shock” or “Celebrity in Sex Scandal Shock”. None of these are actual shocks. I’d be shocked to find someone shocked by them. The superposition of expectation introduces the same teleological inevitability once granted solely to Good and Evil. Beyond the Expected and Unexpected!
  3. The persecution of reality by transcendental values approaches its apogee through knowledge that ‘everyone’ knows. Everyone does not know it, but ‘everyone’ does. Here, expectation of something expectedly shared annihilates difference; that is, the differentials of culture that actually produce meaning. Entire fields of knowledge are organised around bestowing an adequate perception of these most important things, whatever they are, to the everyday innovators of expectation (through Ideas Worth Spreading). Everyone has the ‘right’ to participate in the glorious pursuit over expectation, where we truly value your ‘voice’ because it ‘matters’.[4. An excellent test to carry out before you say or write anything is what difference is being made (if any) or what difference are you attempting to reproduce by governing the future.]
  4. Neitzsche argued that the transcendental values of Morality were a measure of self-preservation, to prevent ‘man’ from despising ‘himself’ as ‘man’. Knowledge, he argued, could drive a ‘man’ to despair. Indeed. After the death of God, what possible hope is there? Well, hope itself; hope in hope. Hope is the handmaiden of expectation. Hope bestows expectation with a robustness that only a nihilist would seek to liquidate. Hope prepares humanity to attend the future; both to be present and to worry over it. A future governed by expectation. If the transcendental values of Christian Morality confected the righteous in Nietzsche’s era, then it is now hope itself that fills ‘man’ up when self-awareness empties ‘him’. The awesome power of contemporary predictive algorithms to ‘recommend’ a given passage of action (this book/food/elected official is an appropriate choice) is built over the heads of ‘men’ as though they were the will of ‘himself’ and, at best, a hope of a world to come. Hence, the future itself has become the operative outside of expectation.[5. It is the future that serves as the ‘authority’ of expectation, to use Nietzsche’s terms, this authority “would know how to speak unconditionally, and could point to goals and missions” (WtP, pages 19-20). For Nietzsche these goals and missions are simulacrum populated by Christian Morality, I am suggesting the constellation of relations represented by ‘expectation’ is captured by the ‘point’ action itself.]

In the contemporary era, expectation is a mobile constellation of relations, unburdened by the tradition of tradition.[6. Except, of course, when tradition is inverted, like a demonic cruxifiction, to project a field of possible futures. Witness the way all people enduring a healthy sense of the ethical grind their teeth when having to live in countries with inhospitable policies of migration. The ‘nation’ is hoisted like wet laundry upon a clothes line in the backyard of banal expectations: not in my backyard. ‘My’ and ‘mine’ is an ‘adequate perception’ of ‘ours’ backformed from a possible future governed by the ‘nation’.] Like Nietzsche’s Christian Morality (WtP, page 9), this mobile constellation of relations are fuelled by the despair of ever freeing ourselves from them. Hence, we crawl out of the slums of our expectedly shared telos, grappling with the zombie bodies and minds of the otherwise disaffected who can’t go on, but nevertheless go on. This is the stage of the transvaluation of all values.

Neitzsche only had to contend with the differential repetition of one set of transcendental values, but now the constellation of relations between elements in the present, but also through relations to the past and future, that manifest this teleology of expectation broken from its traditional transcendental mooring; it has become Mad Max surveying the wasteland of tomorrow — an immanent mobile force forever pursuing the fuel that will propel it on, on, on. Hope. Are you a student of opportunity?

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Utopia3

Anchors of Affect

There is an aesthetics of nihilism. (Are you excited? What are you excited about? I am very excited… but I don’t know why.) The comically stupid interpretations of nihilistic culture appreciate a nihilistic aesthetic to be one of violence, sex, depravity and so on; essentially, anything resonant with a moral wasteland that expresses the loss of transcendental values (such as Christian Morality).

Nope.

An aesthetics of nihilism is one that appreciates the “long waste of strength, the pain of ‘futility’, uncertainty, the lack of opportunity to recover in some way, or to attain to a state of peace concerning anything — shame in one’s own presence, as if one had cheated oneself too long…” (WtP, page 12). The goal of all expectation is that something be attained: what is the return on investment? Are you excited? What are you excited about? The nihilistic appreciates that even with a return, nothing is attained. Pure waste, but of degrees.

Like a future threat governing the present through technics and an apparatus of ‘risk’ [7. See Brian Massumi’s Future Birth of the Affective Fact], the relations of the present to the future pass through various systems of expectation. The future is anchored in the present through affect. How we feel about the future. ‘Hype’ does not simply bestow meaning upon some expected innovation, but on the innovators of expectations, and an entire apparatus of valorisation (‘optics’, targeting entire populations targeting ‘achievements’; now crowdsourced ‘likes’) through the felt-tendency expectedly shared through expectation with others. Are you excited? What are you excited about? You are already targeting the present under remote control from the future: celebrate the autoaffection of drones!

Measuring the “worth of the world according to categories that can only be applied to a purely fictitious world” (WtP, 15) produces an inevitable revulsion. Life itself is vulgarised (WtP, page 23). Coke does not sell us a drink, but a world within which the drink exists. [8. See Maurizio Lazzarato’s Struggle, Event, Media: The corporation does not generate the object (the commodity), but rather the world in which the object exists. Nor does it generate the subject (worker and consumer), but rather the world in which the subject exists.] We consume entire worlds. Quench your thirst and your appetite heralds entire worlds. You command this power to connect with entire systems of existential midwifery. Are you excited? What are you excited about? Was Nietzsche wrong to suggest that nihilism is premised on recognising there is no truth? Satisfaction terminates in the purpose of your appetite; this is the belief and truth of expectation.

Appetite here is of the body, but it is animated with the banal majesty of the future-present of meeting expectations. “Does what it says on the box.” “As advertised.” The consumer is entirely disenfranchised of dignity when following this trivial proscriptions. Hence, the manifest disgust when you begin wallowing in the consumption of this world projected by the futurity of “desiderata” (WtP, page 17). Alone with your excitement and the promise of world to come. I am very excited …but I don’t know why. “Give me a target!” demands the drone of futurity.

Is your excitement active or passive? Or, to ask this question another way, did you inherit your excitement? What were the conditions by which this excitement circulated? What are the vectors of its propagation? If you didn’t inherit this excitement, then how was it manifest? Is it part of a burning fury? Did your excitement bubble up through you? Nietzsche proposes two kinds of nihilism (WtP, page 21):

1. Nihilism as a sign of enhanced spiritual strength: active nihilism.

2. Nihilism as a sign of the collapse and decline of siritual strength: passive nihilism.

The nihilist’s capacity to act is increased (what Nietzsche calls “spiritual vigour”) when the goals or missions that once directed you are no longer suitable; the nihilist begins as an existential exploration: discover your own challenges. If you go on even when you cannot go on and subsume you own challenges according to the proscriptions of expectation, then your randomised playlist soundtrack will always and forever play cynicism. This is a passive nihilism, and the cynic’s capacity to act is diminished, like a fast food patron holding up the drive-thru line paralysed by indecision when choosing from the menu. Exhaustion should be welcomed as the inability to possibilise a future and transient zero-degree of nihilism.

If there is no truth, then first there cannot be appetite. The nihilist does not believe his or her own appetite[9. This is what Nietzsche calls the philosophical nihilist, one who “supposes theat the sight of such a desolate, useless Being is unsatisfying (…) and fills ‘him’ with desolation and despair” (WtP, page 30).]; hence, truth as the satisfaction in the termination of appetite fails to manifest. You feel it in your body; you reject entire worlds. Rather than grappling with the existential dimension of the abject, this is the abject on an existential level.

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Utopia4

Cultures of Nihilism

There are varieties of self-stupefaction manifest as attempts to escape nihilism. I think this is where most critics of nihilist popular culture fall short. They think they are critiquing nihilism, when they are actually critiquing the attempts to escape nihilism (not unlike the scene from Jurassic Park where the intrepid humans wonder at the grace of the stampeding herd and, just before they are almost wiped-out by the excited herd mentality, enters a species of monstrous hunter: ‘Nihilism’). Nietzsche isolates a few examples of such stupefaction:

  1. Rising above the malaise through emotional intoxification: this includes popular culture (‘music’), in scandal (‘cruelty of tragic joy of ruin of the noblest’), in blind enthusiasms (‘hatreds’).
  2. Escape by falling into an oppressive regime of documenting small joys. This includes attempts “to work blindly, like a scientific instrument” (WtP, page 24) or, as I suggest, a drone.
  3. Another form of stupefaction has developed in the ‘so-called’ networked society (the use of ‘so-called’ should signal that I am using a derivative of an ‘expectation’ that governs a certain discourse; the sheer fact that every who reads this knows to that which I am referring is proof). This is the stupefaction of belonging.

Imagine there is a global media culture. There isn’t a global media culture.

There is a global logistical network for the distribution of a limited number of cultural products that audiences imagine belong to a ‘global culture’. There is no outside point of reference for these audiences to gauge whether the cultural products are global or merely appear as global. This is not unlike the way a larger neighbour will dominate the everyday media culture of its smaller neighbour, but this presence is not reciprocated (US to Australia, Australia to New Zealand, and so on). The presumption of participatory relevance is premised on the material conditions for the distribution of culture and the speed with which audiences access these cultural products (such as a mass-synchronised ‘opening’ or ‘release’ that seduce audiences into believing they share the text, which they do not; they simply belong without possibly knowing what it is they belong to).

Of course, irrelevant participation does not preclude localised audience-based interpretations that produce the meaning of the cultural products — that is, the ‘text’ of the cultural product — that blossoms into a deep existential meaning for the audience. It is just such deep existential meaning is utterly irrelevant beyond a limited cloister of like-minded aficionados. The feeling of belonging to a mass cultural event, such as a mass-synchronised ‘opening’, is more of an expression of global culture than any normatively-considered, audience-produced meaning of the ‘text’. [10. There is a paradox here of rendering the audience irrelevant just as media companies mistakenly attempt to resuscitate their businesses by focusing on the audience; not unlike a lifeguard rescuing a drowning victim, while they are actually still drowning on barely remembered past success milked as they fellate their own decaying corporate bodies.]

Besides shared irrelevance, all that is left is a shared disdain. To produce belonging therefore requires a constant involution of immanent modes of belonging.  Shared disdain is another modality of the pessimism that heralds nihilism. Nihilism as the autoaffection of pessimism.

 

Doctor Who is made for Children and Simpletons

“It’s Doctor Who day!” so proclaimed Hugo award-nominated Doctor Who writer Steven Moffat on Twitter last night. I had already watched the five-part “Pond Life” webisode series through the BBC’s Youtube channel, like many other Doctor Who fans, in preparation of the new series. In Australia we were able to watch the first episode of the new Doctor Who series as soon as we woke up this morning thanks to the ABC making it available on their “catch-up TV” service iView. This is exactly what I did, with a coffee in one hand and my iPad in the other. That it coincided with Father’s Day meant my Facebook and Twitter streams were full of Whovian joy crossed over with accounts of fathers watching the show with their children.

And yet there were also the haters. They were in the minority of course, but one comment struck me in particular; the poster said that Doctor Who “is made for children and simpletons”. Obvious troll is obvious, but, still, the elitist platitudes rubbed me up the wrong way… Doctor Who wears its infantile pretensions on its cross-platform global-brand sleeve. To say it is made for children (and, hyperbolically, for simpletons) is to state the obvious. Doctor Who captures a certain kind of stupid that I want to suggest is desperately needed. Hence, this is a defence of Doctor Who by way of a defence of stupidity.

We live in a world in which stupidities attempt to impinge on our mental and spiritual well-being at every turn. Indeed, I used to think of plenty of things were stupid (and still do to a certain extent): elite sport, organised religion, liberal democratic politics, pretty much everything that someone else is doing. A normative appreciation of stupidity, firstly, locates the stupid in someone else, and secondly, works to trace this stupid as the outcome of some kind of failure; a failure of thought, a failure of imagination, a failure of agency and so on.

The greatest stupid is produced by those who think they are a success. This is a kind of existential stupidity that provides security and purpose. Success as an Australian means policing borders. Success as a savvy businessperson means embodying the will of the market. Success as a moral subject means becoming an evangelist of law and order. Conservatism here is not a political category; the politics is just an expression of the ‘claptrap’ (political speech triggering audience clapping on demand) experienced as a collective pat on the back.

None of this is new. To realise this stupidity as an inescapable milieu is pretty much the only quality that is shared by all post-Boomer generations. Some resist through attempts at withdrawal, but this is insufficient. Like the coffee in a forgotten stove-top espresso machine, strategic apathy percolates into a ‘bitter’ generational cynicism. This ‘burnt’ cynic attempts to ward off being swept up in stupidities, but as a result produces their own. The cynicism of youth valorises the stupid of noseless faces.

The performative knowingness of the cynic is balanced with the performative naivety of the existentially enfranchised. This is more about the earnestness of those who transcend the collective stupidities of the individual and rather than choosing success, they choose the struggle. They are working to transcend the conditions of existence that forever turns inward back to the individualising ‘us’: the individual, the family, the nation. The stupid of the struggle is a failure to realise that resistance is futile; worse, it becomes a resource for the ‘winners’, like two cogs turning against each other.

Three forms of ideal stupidity; actual stupid is a combination of the three. If everything is stupid, how can anything or anyone escape or resist or succeed? Embrace your stupidities. In ancient Greece, Socrates called stupidity ‘ignorance’ and wisdom was the recognition of the way ignorance was an inherent character of humanity. Socrates did not live in our world, however. The possibility of ‘wisdom’ is to smuggle stupidity in through the backdoor under the aegis of philosophy. Although, Socrates was definitely on to something. Kant argued for a higher ‘pure’ rationality that transcends stupidity, but he did not recognise the conditions of rationality as being his own stupidity: the unthought of thought that haunts the modernist project. The stupid is the inescapable outside of thought that conditions the possibility of thought. Kant is the Batman of thought. “Why so serious?”

The fourth response is to follow Socrates, but turn Kant into the Joker, and go ‘meta’ to recognise the limits of the other three kinds of stupidity. The antidote to aggrandised Socratic beard-stoking, while at the same time pursuing an unforgiving self-awareness, is through play. To play is to suspend seriousness in a way that is often utterly serious. Is it a surprise then, that practices of ‘meta’ in the form of play characterise much of the activity found on social networks? “Best cat video.” Or imagining politicians as anthropomorphised animals? This is stupid, without a doubt, but it is obviously so. Almost anything that exists in the online economy of memes is an exchange of stupid. This is an invitation to a playful stupidity that is utterly serious.

Hence, it is a mistake to imagine the audience for Doctor Who as children when it renders explicit its process of infantilising the audience. Using the tropes of popular family-oriented science fiction television, Doctor Who incorporates this outside of thought into an hour or so of accessible television. Doctor Who is a suspension of seriousness that is utterly serious; a playful ‘meta’ of serious television and culture more generally. It is an invitation to become aware of our own stupidities.

Post originally appeared at Limited News.

Enthusiasm: The Existential Territory of the Challenge

For the development of “ploys” depends upon finding some method for distinguishing among practices to find those that are politically useful: how is it possible to separate out practices that “the system of products effects within the consumer grid” from those that are “art” or maneuvers by consumers in the room left to them by the system — a task made even more difficult if, as de Certeau admits, all the practices that count as “art” or “culture” aggregate to legitimize the system some of the time and displace it at other times (PEL xvii)? In that case, we would not be able to distinguish among practices on the basis of their effects: as de Certeau explains, “[s]imilar strategic deployments … do not produce identical effects” (PEL xvii). So which features will mark out “culture” from the system? How to separate the system of capitalism from the “culture” of creative consumption that takes place only in and through capitalism? It seems that no bright line devides complicitous practices from resistant ones. — Rotherberg, The Excessive Subject (2009), p 68

Molly Rotherberg engages with a discussion of Bourdieu and de Certeau in her relatively new book The excessive subject: a new theory of social change. This is of particular interest to me as I also engaged with Bourdieu and de Certeau in my dissertation but from a very different theoretical orientation.

I was attempting to tackle precisely the problem that Rotherberg isolates in the above quote regarding the character of the system of capitalism versus the “culture” of creative capitalism that de Certeau famously wrote about. ‘Resistance’ in de Certeau’s writings is produced almost as an accident. The tactical engagement with the gaps produced by the overlapping strategies of power is a question of opportunity and singularity. I ended up framing it differently to Rotherberg (above), instead of seeking ‘resistance’ as an identifiable practice (thus incorporating a dialectical mirror of the capitalist system in the very practice that may or may not elude it), I examined how the productive and creative labour of amateur enthusiasts could be commodified and used to produce surplus value for the creative industry that services the given scene of an enthusiasm. Or to put it another way, how can the enthusiasm of amateurs be harnessed by commercial interests belonging to a creative industry while at the same time still be experienced more or less by the enthusiasts as ‘authentic’ in character?

I went back to Kant’s conception of enthusiasm and rather than treating enthusiasm as a “sign of history” as the effect of an imagination that attempts to come to terms with an Idea (i.e. Revolution) that exceeds the capacity to understand the Idea (as is the case in Lyotard’s reading of Kantian enthusiasm, based on how Kant reads the French Revolution), I treated Kant’s writings more as a description of the general structure for an affective mobilisation that produces practical knowledge. In general, enthusiasm is the linking of an Idea with an Affect. For example, enthusiasm can be said to be morally good when the Idea of the Good is the Idea which is linked with an affect. Others have read Kant in this manner and have described what they’ve called a ‘moral sublime’.

The concept of Enthusiasm can be mobilised in other ways however. Before the affect can be linked to an Idea, an Idea that the faculty of understanding cannot grasp and which ‘inflames’ the power of imagination, a kind of contradiction is presented in Kant’s discussion of enthusiasm. How can enthusiasm be ‘an affect linked with an Idea’, if it is the Idea that cannot be grasped as such and relies on the power of the imagination to think it? Does the Idea exist yet? The Idea of the ‘good’ does, at least in Kant’s philosophy. What if instead of relying on the categories, Ideas were differential relations between the virtual and actual, actualised according to their singularities (as in Deleuze’s philosophy)? Then a different diagram for the concept of enthusiasm present itself. The content of the Idea cannot yet be grasped by the subject of enthusiasm, instead there is only the challenge posed by its relative absence.

A general example of this relating to the problem of resistance/complicity in de Certeau’s work can be found in the everyday practice of enthusiasts. Enthusiast practice is based around the objects or events of their enthusiasm. I researched car enthusiasts who work on, observe and drive cars. More often than not enthusiasts engage with various problems presented by the objects or events of their enthusiasm. ‘Problem’ is meant here in its most general sense. For my car enthusiasts, it was when there was a breakage or some kind of mechanical failure. An enthusiasts does not engage with ‘problems’ however, I am using the term ‘problem’ because that is how most non-enthusiasts would instantly perceive such a breakage or mechanical failure. The singularity that de Certeau described is at the heart of such ‘problems’; there are the actual co-ordinates of the ‘problem’ (the broken mechanical parts), but the singularity also has an intensive dimension.

It is at once a question of perception in general (enthusiast vs non-enthusiast), but also subject to the developmental capacity of the enthusiast to transcend the singularity as an unknown contingency without initially knowing precisely what went wrong. The enthusiasts effects what Deleuze and Guattari call an incorporeal transformation. The actual ‘objective’ co-ordinates of the singularity as a ‘problem’ have not changed, but through an experience-based practical knowledge — know-how — the enthusiast is able to deduce the more precise coordinates of the ‘problem’ and thus translate the singularity from the objective conditions of being a ‘problem’ (where the contingency of the ‘problem’ is unknown, how did it go wrong?) into that of a ‘challenge’. This is the moment that ‘know-how’ begins to be produced.

A non-enthusiast, when faced with such a ‘problem’, will simply take their car to a mechanic and request that it be fixed. A non-enthusiast does not transcend the actualised singularity as a ‘problem’. An enthusiast mobilises before actualising the singularity of the ‘problem’ as the enthusiast first has to transcend the previous conditions of possibility of his or her previous capacities of ‘know how’. That is, he enthusiast still does not know what is ‘wrong’, but like a ‘problem’ the existential territory defined by a ‘challenge’ (or in de Certeau’s language, an ‘opportunity’) is open ended. A ‘challenge’ still has to be met, so to speak, just like a ‘problem’ needs a solution or an ‘opportunity’ needs to be capitalised on. This movement of the enthusiast to meet the challenge is characterised by the active (Spinoza) or strenuous (Kant) affects of enthusiasm. In such moments the non-enthusiast suffers from passive (Spinoza) or languid (Kant) affections. It is why there is often an economy of respect within enthusiast cultures that is determined by the experiential character of challenges that a given enthusiast has ‘met’.

The solution to how enthusiasts labour in such a way as to produce surplus labour for the creative industries that service an enthusiasm is through the way ‘challenges’ are valorised through enthusiast discourse distributed hrough enthusiast magazines and the like. The creative industry presents certain challenges as worthy of enthusiastic mobilisation. The real question then, is not how to identify resistant practice, but how to produce a properly revolutionary ‘know how’.