Mark Zuckerberg and Troy Davis

23 09 2011

Karl Marx famously stated that “religion is the opiate of the masses.”  By this, he meant that the institution of religion keeps the masses satiated and compliant to the will of those in power—those with the capital, those whose ultimate goal was profit above all else. Clement Greenberg had similar ideas about kitsch (though he would be appalled to be so closely linked to Marx). Kitsch satisfies the uncultured, the uneducated, and can be used by those in power to manipulate the opinions and will of the people to their own ends.  Walter Benjamin saw similar potential in entertainment, specifically in film—both Benjamin and Greenberg saw the way Hitler used propaganda and mass-appeal to his own ends as examples of entertainment, rather than religion, as the opiate of the 20th Century masses.

“Entertainment” as such is a bit more difficult to pin down in the age of simulacra, pastiche, and the hyperreal.  It has become ubiquitous and constant in American culture—the rise of the smart phone has brought the power of the internet into the palm of your hand.  Yet this power is used more often to play Scrabble with friends or fiddle around on Facebook or Twitter. One never has to wait to be entertained by an inane post from a friend, a Star Wars/kitten meme, or an insipid 140-character rant from a B-list celebrity or athlete.  Even while waiting in line at the movie theater to be entertained, we seek entertainment from our phones.

The infinite power of the internet... at its best.

The power of Facebook is both greater and less than it is purported to be, either by media outlets or by its own self-promotion.  There was fanfare and congratulations over the role the social media site played in the Arab Spring, with much media attention centered on its use in Egypt.  “Facebook made democracy possible in an oppressed country,” seems to be the underlying attitude of many.  But Facebook did not liberate Egypt:  Egyptians did.  Surely, there was some communication between protesters that did take place on the site, but it was the protests and actions taken by the people, and their resistance against being put down by force, that ultimately resulted in regime change.

Still, the perception of Facebook as the ambassador of democracy to a troubled region has led to an inflated sense of both pride and confidence among Americans. Since the ideology of democracy is at the core of our identity (i.e. “Democracy is Good”), and Facebook helped bring democracy to the Middle East, then Facebook is an example of democracy at its finest.  This, of course, is not true.

Facebook was invented, and is only possible, in a country that holds the Freedom of Speech in high regard.  Facebook is not a democracy, it is a corporation—a private enterprise.  The content placed on Facebook is the sole property of Facebook itself, which can censor anything it chooses (so far, it has chosen not to censor and has been banned in China since 2009 as a result). It can also make changes however it pleases, regardless of what its users may think about the changes.  This week has seen a major change to the layout of the site, with some new features added, and has brought the “wrath” of its customers, with countless angry posts (on Facebook) complaining and demanding a change back.  Mark Zuckerberg is not going to change it back.

This twerp's a billionaire. Do you honestly believe he gives a crap about what you think?

This is not the first time Facebook has made changes, and not the first time its users have been upset.  In the end, by and large, the users don’t leave.  There was an outcry over rules changes in 2009 that ultimately did pressure a reversal of stance by the website.  However, as far back as 2006, the “Students Against Facebook News Feed” group pressured the site to give some control to users to “opt out” of the news feed feature.  In 2009, those controls were removed.  In 2010, nobody was complaining about their lack of control of the news feed.  A year ago, the site made a gradual change to a “New Profile,” that initially seemed voluntary, until the “New Profile” was the only option.

What is dangerous is that Facebook provides the illusion of democracy outside of itself.  Jean Baudrillard made similar statements about the hyperreality of Disneyland.  Baudrillard is not concerned with the fiction that Disneyland presents (i.e. a cleaned-up version of American Main Street), but its function as a “deterrence machine… It’s meant to be an infantile world, in order to make us believe that the adults are elsewhere, in the ‘real’ world, and to conceal the fact that real childishness is everywhere.”  For Baudrillard, the fiction of Disneyland allows us to think that the real world is just that—real.  When, for him it is hyperreal (especially Los Angeles):  a series of images and simulacra.

Facebook is not a democracy. However, the use of Facebook, even when acknowledging that it is an autocracy, allows users to believe that democracy is real outside of Facebook.  The ubiquity of the site—the fact that so many people use it—make it seem as if it is the perfect vehicle to enact democracy, even if it isn’t one itself.  However, this ubiquity feeds the notion that enacting democracy can be as simple as posting a link or a status or a profile picture.  “I’m communicating with so many people,” seems to be the thought, “of course this will make a difference.”  Posting on the internet, without any real-world action, is lazy activism.  It is akin to wearing a sandwich board on the sidewalk, shouting through a megaphone.

The same day Facebook users were writing outraged posts over the new layout, convicted murderer Troy Davis was put to death in Georgia.  The execution was controversial, not just because of the fact that it was an execution, but because many of the witnesses who had testified in the trial had changed or recanted their testimony.  Yet, through all the appeals and Supreme Court hearing requests, the verdict remained unchanged.

There was plenty of Facebook traffic regarding the case.  Many, many of my Facebook friends posted messages of hope for a stay or a pardon, dismay at the fact that the execution was carried out, and scoldings of the people posting about Facebook while a man who may have been innocent was put to death.

The similarity of the Facebook and Troy Davis posts struck me.  In a week, or a month, or a year, who will remember what the old Facebook layout even looked like?  Can you remember the layout in 2009?  Two days after the changes, I see no posts complaining about the layout, when it seemed to be all anyone talked about on Wednesday.  Those so passionately posting about Troy Davis are today posting about their writing, their workdays, their plans for the weekend.  There is no mention of injustice.  There are no links to websites organizing protests against capital punishment.  I am not saying there is no Facebook activity regarding Troy Davis—there are numerous pages and posts—I am saying that the traffic in my circle of friends has very little to do with the case two days after the execution.

This image puts the issues into perspective, but it highlights the limits of Facebook activism (I found this image on Facebook).

Facebook provides the illusion, not necessarily of democracy, but of involvement.  You can post, you can have your say, you can feel like you’ve been a part of something.  Then you can go back to your own life, back to your minutiae, back to being entertained.  When speech is not followed up with action, nothing changes.  When nothing changes, the powerful maintain power over the masses—whether it is Mark Zuckerberg, the State of Georgia, or a dictator in the Middle East.

As an Epilogue, I must say that I believe in the power of the Freedom of Speech, and I believe that Facebook (or, say, blogs) can act as a key communication tool to foment change—to act as the spark of activism.  But the key to activism is action—which takes work in real life, not just online.  I am curious to hear how people go about following up their internet communication with action, especially from those who may be rightfully angry about my dismissal of posts regarding Troy Davis.


The Nostalgia of 9/11

9 09 2011

Here we are nearing the middle of September, a time when, once again, we start to see a buildup in cultural production—television programming, radio interviews, news commentary, etc.—centered around the topic of remembering the attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.  This year, marking the tenth anniversary of the event, has the familiar commemorative speeches, memorial services and monument dedications that we have come to expect.

The further away we get from the date of those attacks, and the more memorializing that happens concerning them, the less impact the events seem to have.  The iconic images are, by now, quite familiar—the video shots of planes hitting the towers, the collapse of each, almost in slow motion, the people fleeing from the onrushing cloud of dust and debris, the thousands walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, the photo of the firemen raising a flag on a damaged and twisted flagpole.  The repetition of those images, especially over time, begins to obscure our own personal memories, our own personal experiences, of that day.

Jean Baudrillard argues that the attacks, to most of the world, were in fact a non-event.  I was living in Spokane, Washington, nowhere near New York City, Pennsylvania, or the Pentagon.  My experience of that day was through the images, not in the events themselves.  The attacks did not really happen to me.  But in a hyperreal world, “factual” experience isn’t the end of the story.  While the physical attacks had no bearing on my experience, the symbol of the attacks did.  The images that were repeated over and over again that day, and in the weeks and months that followed, on television, radio (if  you’ll remember, all radio stations switched to whatever news-format they were affiliated with for about a week), and the internet.  The images were re-born in conversations between friends, family, and acquaintances.  The violence did not happen to us, but the symbol of violence did.  As Baudrillard states, “Only symbolic violence is generative of singularity.”  Rather than having a pluralistic existence—each person with their own experience and understanding of any given topic—our collective experience is now singular.  Nine-eleven didn’t physically happen to me, so it’s not real, but it is real. It’s more real than real.  It’s hyper-real.

But in the ten years since, the hyperreality of the attacks seems to be fading into something else.  As the vicarious (for most of us) experience fades into memory, the singularity of that symbolic violence is shifting into one of nostalgia.  The events as historic fact are replaced by our contemporary ideas about that history as it reflects our own time.  Nostalgia films of, say, the 1950s aren’t about the ‘50s.  They are about how we view the ‘50s from 2011.

The 1950s scenes in Back to the Future don't show us the 1950s. They show us the 1950s as seen from the 1980s.

We’ve seen this nostalgia as early as the 2008 Presidential campaign, which included many candidates using the shorthand for the attacks (“Nine-eleven”) to invoke the sense of urgency or unity or the collective shock of that day.  The term “nine-eleven” no longer just refers to the day and attacks, but to everything that went with them and to the two resulting wars and nearly ten years of erosion of civil liberties.  What happens with this nostalgia is that details become muted and forgotten, and we end up molding whatever we are waxing nostalgic about into something we want to see—to a story we can understand and wrap our heads around.

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This morning I listened to a radio interview of a man who carried a woman bound to a wheelchair down some 68 floors of one of the towers on the day of the attacks.  He was labeled a hero, but in subsequent years, slid into survivor’s (or hero’s) guilt and general cynicism.  He looked around the United States in the years after the attacks and saw the petty strife, the cultural fixation on celebrity trivialities, and the partisan political divide seemingly splitting the country in two.  He longed for the America of the time immediately following the attacks, “Where we treated each other like neighbors,” the kind of attitude, as suggested by the interviewer, that led him to offer to help this woman he did not know in the first place.

Certainly, there was the appearance of national unity after the attacks.  Signs hung from freeway overpasses expressing sympathy for those in New York.  Flags hung outside every house in sight.  People waited for hours to donate blood on September 12, just to try to do something to help.  The symbols of unity were abundant, but division abounded as well.  Many were still angry, skeptical, and suspicious of George W. Bush, who had been granted the presidency by a Supreme Court decision which, to some, bordered on illegal.  Within communities, fear and paranoia led to brutal attacks on Muslim (and presumed-Muslim) citizens.  Fear led to post offices and federal buildings blockaded from city traffic.  In Boise, a haz-mat team was called due to suspicious white dust, feared to be anthrax, on the steps of the post office.  It turned out to be flour placed there to help direct a local running club on their course. The flags were still flying, but the supposed sense of unity and “neighborhood” was, in actuality, suspicion.

To look back at September 11th, 2001 and view it as a time of unity in comparison to the contemporary political divide is nostalgia.  The view is not of the historical time period, but what one wants that time period to have been that then acts as an example of what the present “should” be.  Perhaps nostalgia is inevitable.  As time passes and memories fade, the repeated symbols of any given time or event become re-purposed, gain new meaning from the reality (or hyperreality) from which they are being viewed.  The goal for many regarding the attacks is to “never forget.”  The repetition of the images keeps us from forgetting, but it also contributes to the memory changing.

Sources:  Baudrillard, Jean.  “The Gift of Death.” originally published in Le Monde, Nov. 3, 2001

Here and Now (radio show).  “A Reluctant 9/11 Hero Looks Back.”  Airdate:  Sept. 9, 2011

Not Knowing

1 07 2011

Last fall, my father, brother, and I all went to a Boise State University football game.  It was an auspicious occasion, as the Broncos were facing the Oregon State Beavers and the game was nationally televised in prime time.  It was an exciting game, the Broncos won, and a good time was had by all.  Seeing a sporting event in person provides a full-immersion sensory experience–the game, the crowd, the weather, the sounds of the bands and the public-address announcer, the smell of the grass (or blue field-turf in this case) and concessions, even the dog that runs out to retrieve the tee after each kickoff—that you don’t get from watching the game at home on TV.  The difference that I found most refreshing, however, confuses many people I try to explain it to.  I like the fact that, when you’re watching the game in person, you don’t know everything that’s going on.

There's a little white speck in the top left part of this photo. That's me! I think.

Depending on the network and the stakes, a nationally televised football game has somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty cameras at work.  When you’re watching a game at home, simply visually, it’s as if you’re watching it from twenty different positions within the stadium.  You don’t just have the “best seat in the house,” you have the twenty best seats in the house.  When you’re at the game, you have one seat.  And it might be a bad seat.  At the game I went to, we were high up in the stands, just behind the left corner of the south end zone.  With only one vantage point and one set of eyes, my perception of what was happening was limited.  Watching at home, you can be watching the ball during the play, but then be taken back for a replay of what you just watched except this time you’re seeing what the wide receiver was doing away from the ball.  “Oh, Brent, that corner is starting to get under the receiver’s skin.  It’s getting pretty chippy out there,” Kirk Herbstreit might say as you view the slow-motion footage of the two athletes shoving each other while running down the field.

To be sure, at home one has the opportunity to see the game from many more physical viewpoints than the person at the live event.  But that experience of the game is mediated.  Football is a complicated game.  Players are split between offensive players and defensive sides for each team.  There are long- and short-yardage specialists for both sides.  Each side has its own coordinating coach and, the higher the stakes, the more individual position coaches are used—the quarterbacks coach, the offensive line coach, the defensive backs coach.  To compare sports to war can be dangerous, but in the area of complexity of strategy involved football is closer to military conflict than, say, tiddlywinks.  Because of this complexity, the broadcast analyst plays a crucial role in the television viewer’s understanding of the game.  Without exception, the major-network analysts for pro and college games are men who either played or coached at that level.  They have years of education and experience with the strategies tactics of the game, and the good ones are able to communicate what they are seeing and how it is affecting the situation of either team.

This is what makes all those camera angles and slo-mo replays possible.

So, when one is watching a football game at home, that person is getting a more thorough and insightful presentation of the event that is taking place.  However, that experience, however thorough, is mediated.  The camera angles that are shown are being chosen by the director, and those individual shots are being composed and focused by each cameraman.  The viewer’s knowledge of what factors are affecting the outcome (say, a lack of running game or an injury to a key player) are being clarified and contextualized by the analyst.

In fact, that analyst is being assisted by field reporters, producers and the director in what to address via what replay is being shown or what information is available.  Yes, the home experience of the football game is broad, but it is packaged and delivered by a team of cameramen, directors, producers, and analysts.  You may feel like you know everything about the game you’re watching but what you know is limited to what they provide.  Your experience isn’t even their experience (it must be something completely different to watch a game with a director and a producer telling you through an earphone what the next replay will be while you’re also supposed to be speaking about the game your watching both on a field and through a monitor in front of you), it’s the experience they have made for you.

On the other hand, the experience one has at a football game is his or hers alone.  You may be watching the runner with the ball and miss the excellent swim-move made by the defensive end right before the tackle.  You might be having a conversation with the face-paint-clad fan next to you and miss the time-out performance by the cheer squad.  You probably won’t be aware of the trouble the Bronco offense is having running to the left side due to a thumb injury to the left guard, or that this field goal kicker is 48% from this range.  But you have just as full of an experience of the game.  Your opinions on strategy and understanding of what has taken place are first-hand experience, not mediated by a network team of dozens of people.  You know what you’ve seen, but you don’t know “everything.”

I attempted to explain my attitude to my father as we were watching a replay of the game the next night, which seemed almost surreal.  Here we were, supplementing our experience of the game we’d seen first-hand with a second-run airing of the same game as shown to a third party, as if to make our experience more complete, more real.  While it did seem a little trippy, surreal isn’t the right term.  What we were engaging in was hyper-real.

Jean Baudrillard explored the notion of the hyperreal.  For him, hyperrealism is a defining characteristic of postmodernity.  It is the collapse of the distinction between the representation and what it is representing—between the representation and the “real.”  I am not arguing here that the game I witnessed was more real than the game that was broadcast on ESPN.  I’m saying that both games were real.  Hyperrealism is the acknowledgment that what is represented IS reality.

In another context, Michel Foucault argues that discourse is reality, meaning that the discussion about a topic (sexuality for Foucault, football for us) constitutes what that topic is and what it means.  Discourse can be history books, movies, or football telecasts, and all constitute how we understand history as reality.  An example of this is the discourse on Vietnam provided by television and movies.  Increasingly, especially for those of us who did not live through or have any direct experience of that war, what we see in films like Full Metal Jacket or Platoon constitutes our experience, and therefore our knowledge of the Vietnam conflict.  For us, the films aren’t about Vietnam, they are Vietnam.

The "Vietnam" scenes of Full Metal Jacket were filmed at an abandoned gasworks outside London.

Hyperrealism is pervasive.  A week ago, a friend of mine got a text message from his girlfriend that we both made a joke about.  He immediately went onto facebook and posted an extension of that joke onto my wall.  The conversation and the joke spanned three realities—the text, the actual interaction, and facebook—none of these is more “real” than the others, yet two are representations of conversations on different digital planes.  Yet they are all intertextual extensions of the same conversation.

To connect this to the football game, the game I witnessed was no more or less real than the game broadcast on television.  And once I watched the game in the rebroadcast, both experiences became my one singular experience of the game.  The real and the represented are one thing, and my trip to the BSU game is now hyperreal.

For me, there is a lure to the unmitigated first-hand experience of watching the game in person, of not “knowing” all of what happened.  My experience of the game was subjective—no one else saw the game exactly the way I did.  To not know is to be a single person in a single place at a single time.  To not know is to be human on a very basic level.  To not know is to be a part of reality instead of hyperreality, if only for a moment.

Bibliographic information:

Storey, John.  An Introduction to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture.  Athens, GA:  The University of Georgia Press, 1998.

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