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’.

Media Interest Cycle

John Battelle has an interesting post on his blog that begins to isolate the phenomenon of internet interest bubbles. John is primarily talking about tech journalism and he explains that the bread and butter of tech journalists is to pursue the “echo chamber”. Rather than one massive tech bubble like the dot-com boom that collapsed in 2000, John is arguing that the accelerated media cycle (I won’t call it a ‘news cycle’) and the democratisation of access to publishing channels due combined with ultra-low barriers of participation.

we have migrated to a more free-wheeling discourse driven by any number of interested parties. As it relates to the Internet industry, that means VCs and entrepreneurs promoting or angling for investments or promotion (or souring a deal they didn’t get a part of), bankers trying to influence any number of outcomes, and sources within all manners of companies pushing their own agenda on Twitter, Quora, or in private conversations with bloggers and other media outlets.

The accelerated media cycle means that tech media outlets can ride the wave of interest produced as part of and in response to a given tech ‘PR event’. It is an example of where the structure of media has flipped from a cycle determined by the rhythms of publishing, distribution or broadcast constraints, to be a rhythm of the media cycle organised around the capacity of the audience to be interested in a given topic or event.
Not unlike the structure of a moral panic as a kind of media event, the ‘PR events’ that John is discussing in this context have a particular trajectory across media channels and involve a recognisable repertoire of story genres (the rumour or rumour, the announcement, the product launch, the walkthrough, the dismantling, the market response, etc.) and an equally recognisable list of players in the drama (the source, the tech company messiah, the fanboi, the self-righteous tech reporter).
I think it would be possible to map these ‘PR events’ by tracking all commentary within a discrete event. The complication, as anyone interested in media events will be aware, is the baroque character of media events. The ‘iPad2’ event is nestled within the larger ‘Apple’ event and so on.
The more pressing question for many media professionals is regarding the role of journalism within these PR events. Is it ‘journalism’ to cover the release of a new product? Just because you feed the ‘interest’ of an audience, does that make what you write ‘news’ and your practice ‘journalism’? For example, what newsworthy value can be found in the PR event of the iPad2 launch? It seems almost as if many journalists turn the PR event on its side and report on the success or failure of the PR event itself (What does the Apple fanboi think? What is the aggregate response by the tech media community?), but is this ‘news’?


The first post in a series on The Affective Cycle of Popular Culture on Boredom.

General disclaimer: It is the basis for a lecture on the topic. It is note-based without substantial examples and without any context-setting work for the readings (e.g. who is Kracauer and what was the intellectual context of his article?).

The two main readings for this fortnight are Siegfried Kracauer’s 1924 article “Boredom” espousing a ‘radical boredom’ and Paul Corrigan’s 1975 chapter in Resistance Through Rituals “Doing Nothing”.

Siegfried Kracauer’s 1924 “Boredom”
Kracauer is concerned that “the world makes sure that one does not find oneself”:

[O]ne’s spirit — which is no longer one’s own — roams endlessly out of night and into the night. If only it were allowed to disappear! But, like Pegasus on a carousel, this spirit must run in circles and may never tire of praising to high heaven the glory of a liqueur and the merits of the best five-cent cigarette. Some sort of magic spurs the spirit relentlessly amid the thousand electric bulbs, out of which it constitutes and reconstitutes itself into glittering sentences.

Kracauer raises the brief examples of the movie theater and radio as examples of activities whereby participants are occupied, but do not occupy their own will. “Silent and lifeless, people sit side by side as if their souls were wondering about far away. But these souls are not wandering according to their own preference; they are badgered by the news hounds, and soon no one can tell anymore who is the hunter and who is the hunted.”

Kracauer’s logic is thus: If you find yourself the object of boredom, forever trying to occupy yourself with something or another, to ward off boredom, then you are the subject of interests that are not your own. This is not an ideological struggle, although it may be expressed as such, it is primarily an affective struggle over one’s interest.

The only proper response then is to welcome boredom through an act of patience, “the sort of boredom specific to legitimate boredom”. Then, Kracauer argues, “one experiences a kind of bliss that is almost unearthly”. The world is transformed and you begin to notice that the landscape is populated in ways that you had not previously perceived. As a result your soul swells with a “great passion”.
Kant would’ve called this a mode of the aesthetic sublime and a product of supreme disinterested interest; an affect when joined with the idea of the good, or ‘enthusiasm’.

Paul Corrigan’s 1975 “Doing Nothing”
Corrigan’s chapter in Resistance through Rituals begins with a different set of problematics. During his fieldwork he discovered that the principle activity of ‘British subculture’ is in fact ‘doing nothing’. There are a number of components of “doing nothing”:

1) Talking. Firstly, the most common form of talking is the story. Stories are recounted following one of Sartre’s definitions of ‘adventure’ (from Nausea), where an adventure is defined not merely by the randomness of events or the level of excitement induced by participation in particular activities, no the criterion of adventure is that you do something worthy of talking about as a story afterwards. Most consumers are convinced that the world is full of such ‘adventures’; hence with the advent of social media such ‘talking’ has migrated online and we are inundated with regular people offering a running commentary on their everyday lives.

Secondly, Corrigan argues, the purpose of the talking is not so much to communicate, but to communicate the experience of talking. It is the act of telling the story that is important, not the subject of the story (which of course matters, but it is secondary). In Theodor Adorno’s infamous essay about the Culture Industry in which he attacks Jazz, he also notes a similar shared dimension of consumption that was not so much about being linked to a specific commodity, but more about ‘sharing good times’. The burden of exchanged-based valorisation versus aesthetic efficacy implicit in his infamous critique of commercial jazz – that “it is fine for dancing and dreadful for listening” – needs to be inverted by combining it with another of his observations in the same essay. He writes that in “Amercian conventional speech, having a good time means being present at the enjoyment of others, which in its turn has as its only content being present”. Adorno acknowledges, albeit in a dismissive fashion, the necessary role of affect in its movement across the bodies of others as being colloquially realised as ‘having a good time’. The more interesting observation is the relation of alterity implicit in the experience of a ‘good time’, that is being present at the enjoyment of others.

To shift registers from the interesting to the critical, the point is that through story telling the people taking part of the story telling event experience a sense of belonging; they were within this virtuosic dimension of the story telling and witnessed this virtuosic dimension mediated through the reactions and implication of other bodies in the event. It is what Brian Massumi calls becoming-together.

Notice how there does not have to be a commodity present here? One of the current functions of the marketing industry is to implicate commodities in the everyday adventures of consumers so consumers will tell stories about them, ie Word of Mouth advertising.

2) Weird Ideas. That major component of ‘doing nothing’, Corrigan (following his research subjects) calls ‘weird ideas’:

It is the ‘weird idea’ that represents the major something in ‘doing nothing’. In fighting boredom the kids do not choose the street as a wonderfully lively place, rather they look on it as the place where there is the most chance that something will happen. […] The weird ideas then are born out of boredom and the expectation of future and continuing boredom, and this affects the sort of weird ideas they are. A good idea must contain the seeds of continuing change as well as excitement and involvement.

Like Adorno’s consumers who ‘have a good time’ by ‘being present at the enjoyment of others’, Corrigan’s working class kids told stories to pass the time. Time, when “doing nothing”, is a burden as it populated with the expectation of future and continuing boredom. They go out looking for interesting things to occur — “we are not talking about boys going out on a Saturday night looking for milk bottles to smash, rather it is a purely interesting thing that occurs.” What is the relation then between interest/interesting things and the qualitative dimension of time? How interested do you have to be to have a good time? Or is it simply a case of being able to experience another person’s interest that makes the time good?

For Corrigan’s working class kids the alternative to ‘doing nothing’ in the street is staying at home with “Mum and Dad in the front room” or going to a venue like the Youth Club. In other words, activities that are sanctioned as morally appropriate by adults. Unlike Kracauer’s proto-consumers of the culture industry, Corrigan’s working class kids do not have access to cultural commodities that would be of interest to them. Undoubtedly, if there were interesting things to do then kids would not be hanging out in the streets. And yet, they do, because there is nothing else. They are not constrained by a cultural landscape saturated by advertising, which sends consumers off on a maze constructed by the expectations of others’ enjoyment; rather, their maze is overdetermined by their material conditions of existence.

The Conservatism of Mumbrella?

A recent series of posts on the self-proclaimed PR and social marketing blog Mumbrella on the relation between Twitterer’s personal beliefs and their respective professional PR and social marketing personae indicates an interesting way that anxieties around mixing of public and private lives online are still manifest.

The first post was by (whom I assume to be) Tim Burrowes posting on his ‘personal’ section, called Mumbo, of his Mumbrella site on an exchange between a Twitterer, Natalie Swainston, and the SMH trollumnist, Miranda Devine. Burrowes apparently believes the exchange between Swainston and Devine was noteworthy, if not newsworthy, because he perceived that it was an “intriguing insight” into the tensions between “journo-PR relations”.

The second post was in the actual ‘news’ section of Mumbrella, perhaps because the second post was actually about a Twitterer tweeting something of professional consequence (unlike Swainston’s effort): a Twitter employed by a company that has commercial relation with a second company was critical of the environmental impact of the practices of the second company. Again, at stake was Burrowes view that “intemperate tweeting has caused issues for PRs”.

Burrowes makes it even clearer what is at stake in these online exchanges that he perceives trouble public-private lives in a comment to another blog post on the topic:

The problem with that suggested policy [of separate personal and professional online personae] is that it’s naive about how journalists would interpret someone’s personal vs professional persona.

“I’m tweeting in a personal capacity” may be a disclaimer, but it’s not a cloak of invisibility.

If what you say is relevant to your day job and you are identifiable, then you need to treat Twitter as you would any other broadcast medium.

If you don’t want your tweets public, then either protect them, don’t do it in your own name, or don’t tweet stuff that could get you into trouble.

The contradiction of course is that Burrowes is discounting the possibility of separate professional and personal personae for normal Twitterers, but when it comes to Miranda Devine’s trollumnist practice he assumes such a separation, i.e. as suggested by his aside in his first post “(although Dr Mumbo has always considered her to be a satirical creation)”.

So what is going on here? Why is this politically and socially conservative self-disciplined muzzling of one’s online persona being advocated and valorised?

An overly critical perspective would see Burrowes and like-minded PR and marketing types to be prostituting their self-image for the benefit of their clients and their professional interests. The expectations of the ‘self’ are literally collapsed into the expectations of the client. Of course, critical perspectives of marketing and associated industries have long banged-on about how soulless the industry is. This, I think, you could describe as the worst case interpretation.

Support for this interpretation comes from Burrowes treating the two examples above as the same. In the first case the Twitterer had no professional connection whatsoever to Devine. In the second case the Twitterer was actually being critical of a client of his employer. Burrowes has collapsed the two different events into being examples of a general relation between personal and professional Tweet personae. One’s ‘public’ persona must to be disciplined so as to conform to any and all possible expectations of an imaginary client that could potentially be anyone. Therefore, ‘personal’ views – such as those on ‘public’ issues regarding politics or the state of the environment – must be kept under wraps and secret so as not to offend the sensibilities of this potentially-anyone client.

Although there may be some substance to view that marketing professionals are soulless prostitutes, especially when relatively minor skirmishes in the culture wars played out on Twitter are ‘reported’ as noteworthy, if not newsworthy, I prefer to read Burrowes’s anxiety around the public-private distinction as a way to grapple with the pressure of this tendency towards becoming an example of the worse case scenario. Burrowes is actually trying to find a way to maintain a sense of ‘self’ while under pressure to become a mere functionary expression of the imaginary client’s expectation.

It is a very good example of the way that people working within a given profession attempt to grapple with the ethical quandaries of having to satisfy a client’s expectations while maintaining one’s personal political passions. Of course I am not in marketing (the only thing I could market would be the revolution!) but I do know a thing or two about enthusiasm and what it means to mobilise people’s passions. Perhaps a more effective approach rather than a conservative and reactionary separation of personal and professional, to the explicit detriment of the personal, one should seek a better integration of the personal and the professional. Rather than PR and social marketers being disciplined to be worthy of clients, maybe PR and social marketing types should pick and choose clients that are worthy of their talents?