Friday, October 03, 2008
Spec-tac-u-lar posted by Richard SeymourIt is impossible to watch the news media for any length of time in this climate. The conventions that work so well when things are merely tough all over jar horribly when things are turning to shit. The pseudo-belligerent tone of inquiry, the determined trivialisation, the handy diversion of any serious thought into prepared memes, all of this is just enraging. Take this, for example. The economist Nouriel Roubini and the former investment banker turned tabloid columnist Oliver Kamm are invited to discuss the financial crisis with presenter Stephen Sackur. Roubini describes the proposed bail-out as "socialism for the rich", and Sackur immediately diverts it into the right-wing meme, "he's saying it's socialism!" as if that's the same thing. He then goes on to refer to Roubini as a Prophet of Doom, and then as Dr Doom. And he taunts him a few times by saying that he would rather allow the economy to collapse and wait for a 'pure' plan than accept the imperfect one that has been proposed, seemingly impervious to Roubini's reply. He then invites Kamm, as a former merchant banker, to say he has been too greedy, as though the activities of hedge funds and so on were a matter of individual choice rather than of the imperatives of capital accumulation (for which Kamm is an ideologue and an apologist). Kamm naturally bats this noisome question away with ease. All of this perplexing, frustrating inanity is offered under the rubric of 'hard talk', a somewhat laboured attempt to capitalise on the Paxman fetish in which viewers enjoy the thrill of watching some politician or commentator get roundly abused and sometimes spoken down to. It is almost as if every time Roubini tries to give a serious answer, someone is yelling Sackur's ear that it's getting too boring, that he must interject some confrontation somehow, make it more exciting. Infotainment. If it's going to be that way, they may as well give Sacha Baron Cohen the contract so that at least we can be pleasantly diverted while the ship sinks. At the same time, Chris Morris could be left to review Sarah Palin's 'debate' performances and produce 'word clouds' representing David Cameron's speeches. And that way, when David Cameron cuts corporation tax and inheritance tax, cracks down on Muslims, slashes public spending on vital services, and does nothing to compel banks to increase the supply of affordable mortgage credit, we will at least know that his favourite word is 'people'.
More insidiously, there is the constant drama of the stocks: they're up, they're down, they're chaotic, they're unstable, the brokers apparently subject to wild mood swings due to 'optimism' or 'pessimism' about the bail-out. One finds oneself ignoring the evidence of one's own senses. If the evidence relates that there isn't really that strict a correlation between the fluctuations of the stock market and the politics of the bail-out (albeit, we all know that the markets will throw a massive hissy fit for a day or two if they don't get their billions), so much the worse for the evidence. The media narrative is unbelievably uniform, from country to country: almost every major outlet has it that the bail-out is essential to avoid sudden death, accusing those who voted against it of being too attentive to voters' concerns (or rather, too 'populist', as it is often put). The financial surges and slumps are thus interpreted as providing empirical support for the Bush administration's blackmail. The market data becomes the stuff of a glorified form of geomancy, or palmistry: "this line right here, that's your marriage line, says you'll be divorced before this crisis is through... that one says if you don't give Paulson everyone he wants, you're going to lose your home... this one warns you against your natural herd-like 'populist' instincts...". We are sternly warned of the horror that awaits us, horror whose dimensions can only be guessed at from the mortified faces of the stockbrokers themselves, if we refuse to capitulate, and tell the bankers to take a hike.
But there's something else. Take a look at this (via Qlipoth):
This is the destruction of the American 'middle class'. Their lives, their homes, their belongings, all consumed in the relentless fury of creative destruction. People flee in a hurry, as if a tornado was rushing toward them, leaving behind computers, televisions, birth certificates, photographs, memories, all of it now material for the furnace of waste capital. This is a normal component of the capitalist 'business cycle'. And if a function of the news media is to bracket public memory in such a way that each crisis is experienced as if it were brand new, the result of an exogenous assault on an otherwise venerable profit system, a function of culture appears to be to naturalise the experience of crisis when it does come. By 'function' I do not mean 'intended effect' - it is just the particular contribution that the media industry makes to the reproduction of the social system. The weltanschauung winds have been blowing for a long time in this direction. For every half-way decent anti-corporate production that the media corporations produce (Michael Clayton, The Wire, etc), there are probably several thousand that encourage one not to be so wedded to one's stuff, from the pantheistic American Beauty, to the pop-Heideggerian Fight Club, to the eco-capitalist Wall-E. These, and lesser shows like them, are often praised as 'anti-consumerist', but it is surely more accurate to describe them as 'anti-materialist'. Please don't fret, by the way, if you happen to like some of these films and think I'm spewing arse-gravy. I like them all, and this isn't an attack on your enthusiasms. After the way my review of Batface: the Dark Shite went down, I feel obliged to point that out. I am just speculating about a deep cultural logic. The aesthetic appreciation of the destruction of our stuff seems to be as essential to cultural production as waste production, planned obsolescence and the cyclical obliteration of use values is embedded in capitalism. Congruently, the idea that people might have a collective interest in, and strategies for, defending their stuff, is not within the culture industry's repertoire of conventions. In fact, for all the justified mockery of the evangelicals and their evident delight in spelling out the ineluctable and grotesque end that awaits most of humanity, it is a cultural commonplace that there is nothing we can do in the face of catastrophe other than aestheticise it. Indeed, just as in Christian eschatology, we prove ourselves equal to the catastrophe and thus worthy of redemption in the cleansed aftermath precisely by exulting in it. Everyone else belongs to the growing nation of whiners, who ought to be repenting their sins of over-indulgence rather than trying to stop the inevitable.