Sunday, April 23, 2017
After the Catastrophe: resistance and the post-truth era
Mourning is movement; melancholia is stasis.
We live, supposedly, in an age of ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth politics’. This is a misunderstanding. ‘Pre-post-truth politics’ includes the era of the ‘war on terror’ and its deceptions, and the orthodoxies and falsehoods which led to the elite debacle of the credit crunch. It is technique, not truth, which has been found wanting. That is, the idea of a ‘fact’ as an objective measurement of reality, is losing ground in the post-credit crunch era.
‘Post-truth politics’ is what, until now, we have been living under: technocracy, in a word. The “monstrous worship of facts”, as Wilde called it, is nothing other than an avoidance of the question of truth. The category of ‘fake news’ describes a fusion of infotainment, propaganda, public relations and churnalism which has been long in the making, now accelerated by online advertising revenues. The moral panic which blames ‘fake news’ for the rise of fascism and right-wing populism misses the point that these degraded ecologies of information have triumphed in the vacuum of political possibilities produced by the post-Cold War consensus.
What the moral panic also obscures, by displacing it, is the fact that ‘fake news’ is just one symptom of the breakdown of the near ideological monopoly previously enjoyed by large commercial and state media outlets. The fragmentation of content, the rise of ‘narrowcasting’ on social media, the proliferation of producers — more people are published authors now than ever before, rewarded in ‘likes’ rather than cash payment — produces as many opportunities as pathologies. New types of information and new ways of sharing it, new literacies, new modes of writing, are becoming possible.
The problem is that we grope toward these opportunities in the shadow of catastrophe. The fall of the USSR didn’t signal the defeat of socialism so much as confirm it, at just the point at which it is clear that the persistence of capitalism means possible species death. Parties, publications, union membership, ideological affiliations, confidence and self-organisation dwindled and fragmented into the scale of atoms. And politics without the possibility of a liberated future, curdles and turns reactionary. New forms of antisystemic politics are emerging to take advantage of new forms of social media, but they can’t by themselves replace what has been lost. Without acknowledging what we have lost, we cannot creatively adapt to what we have left. We need, as Douglas Crimp wrote, “Militancy, of course, but mourning too: mourning and militancy.”
- [ ] In the beginning was the lie. Freud points out that it is a condition of our autonomy that we can successfully lie: once we know mum and dad can’t read our minds, we can think freely and rather subversively. Milan Kundera argues that the injunction not to lie is one that can never be made to an equal, because we have no right to demand answers from equals. Adorno argued that, “the injunction to practice intellectual honesty usually amounts to a sabotage of thought.”
- [ ] And if I’m top-loading this talk with quotes and intellectual armoury, it is because I’m aware of how merely common-sensical is, what Wilde called “the monstrous worship of facts” — exactly what we have been living under. A politics exclusively consisting of facts is a tyranny of technique and an avoidance of truth. The relationship of lies to truth turns out to be rather more interesting than we would assume.
- [ ] So when we talk of “post-truth politics”, with the implication that we have just departed from an era of unalloyed truth-telling, from Iraq to the credit crunch, we might be making a huge category error. In truth, it is not truth, but facts, which have been found wanting; facts, as somehow purely objective measurements of social realities which, because intrinsically relational, can never be purely objective. Expertise, as Michael Gove reminds us, has made us sick; its seeming commonsensical neutrality exposed as merely the prestige of the ruling ideology. Sir Humphrey Appleby can sound like a technocrat only for as long as the ends to which techniques are crafted are taken for granted.
- [ ] Those blaming the internet for this state of affairs run up against the difficulty that the internet doesn’t exist. It is by now a cultural commonplace that the Internet, as Internet jargon has it, it isn’t “a thing”: jokes about the internet in South Park and The IT Crowd make light of the tendency to reify the internet by representing it as a single broadband router. And we get the joke, because we know that what we call the internet is a series of processes and relations mediated by its technological bases and protocols. But we forget it, too, if we succumb to either cyber-idealism or cyber-cynicism, by reinforcing too strict a demarcation between the online and the offline.
- [ ] I think it would be useful, therefore, to start with the kind of activity that is involved in the internet, and particularly in social media: that is writing.
- [ ] We are all authors. Interrogate that we: the differential access to the internet is obviously raced, and classed, and in an interesting way, gendered -- it isn't just about affordability and bandwidth, it is about how much work you have to do. A consequence of the internet is that, we all write, and we are all published. Because of email, social media, and instant messaging services, we now spend more of our lives writing than we ever have. We are acquiring new literacies at a ferocious rate. We have yet to grasp the full significance of this vast expansion of literacy, this democratisation (and further commodification) of writing. One thing we do now is that we are all becoming amateur hermeneuticists, scanning quickly through acres of text, learning to discern, quick sharp, how to discern trolling and ‘fake news’, paid advertisements, charlatanry, and scams. We’re also learning the whereabouts of all kinds of invisible and rapidly shifting cultural thresholds; things that can and cannot be said and in what way.
- [ ] We are all, putting it slightly differently, artists of the self. When you write, you invent yourself, give yourself a specific embodiment. By putting some part of your being into the form of words, you're giving it a corporeal shape that it would not otherwise had. You are not just 'expressing' something that was already there, but creating something new. And you're doing this every day, all the time. The format in which you can do so matters. Rather than keeping diaries, many of us now metabolise our lives online, for a public. Our pets, our dating mishaps, our family lives, our jobs, our accidents, the quiddity of experience is inscribed in a public realm in the heavily stylised format of tweets and posts, with current moods, filters, hashtags, emojis, stickers and the rest affording us a convenient short-hand to make ourselves conformable to our peers.
- [ ] Of course, there is another form of writing that is achieving a degree of autonomy from human creators, and that is computer programming and script. It is completely non-phonetic writing which reminds us that writing began with the knot or quipu, read through touch, and it does as much to give us embodiment as what we may write in our phonetic alphabets.
- [ ] Social media is not new -- non-commercial leftwing popular newspapers in the past operated as a kind of social media -- but capitalist social media arguably is. The social media formats in which most of us do most of our writing is so structured as to make petty entrepreneurs out of us. Our writing becomes a form of corporate personality, a sales pitch seeking to attract eyeball attention and 'followers'. This both a democratic opening, and a property-based closure; both an unprecedented opportunity, and an acceleration of the ‘culture of narcissism’ that Christopher Lasch worried about. It supports to an extent Manuel Castells’ argument about ‘creative autonomy’, since it breaks the ideological monopoly of the broadcasters and print media; but it also supports the argument of Philip Mirowski and to some extent Evgeny Morozov that in its networked individualism (or entrepreneurialism), it is a playground for neoliberalism.
- [ ] Technologies are not socially and politically neutral. If nuclear power tends to support hierarchical, secretive structures, social media tends to support the opposite: a panopticon effect. Individually, this has both opportunities and costs.
- [ ] The internet is a rigged lottery. If our capitalist social media accounts are indeed set up like enterprises competing for eyeball attention, then going viral or 'trending' is like winning the lottery. And in principle, anyone can win. The potential audience for your writing literally is the entire internet. In practice, of course, the lottery is mostly won by well-placed media corporations and public relations firms dominating the terrain.
- [ ] Even if we do win, it can be the worst thing that happens. While most of us dream of going viral with that one insightful tweet or post, few of us are equipped to maximise any opportunities that arise from positive publicity, or to cope with the costs of negative publicity — which might include shaming or trolling campaigns, themselves a devolved form of tabloid expose and bottom-feeding culture. We may be treated as if we're small enterprises, but since we are not corporations with public relations budgets, we are vastly under-resourced to handle the attention we may potentially receive.
- [ ] Far from simply challenging the ideological power of the old media, moreover, at critical moments it arguably amplifies and exacerbates it. The rise of narrowcasting and the proliferation of content producers helps to disperse the concentrated spectacle of broadcast news into the diffuse spectacle of Twitter and Facebook. This can even be more effective in securing consent, as Guy De Bord pointed out, because it works through seduction and commodity competition, rather than simple top-down violence. This is to stipulate a different form of presence of violence within the organisation of consent, rather than a withdrawal of violence.
- [ ] This is in part because capitalist social media isn’t an organised opposition or alternative to the mainstream but a formal extension of it looped into new economies of attention. If one thinks of the England riots and the role of social media in allowing certain points of view to be ‘spontaneously’ organised — pro-police and counter-subversive attitudes and campaigns — one can also call to mind those attitudes which were more effectively identified and punished, by looking at the case Azhar Ahmed, the #twitterjoketrial or any number of instances wherein social media users have been prosecuted under public order legislation.
- [ ] Whence then the fear of post-truth politics? And the moral panic about ‘fake news’? The category of ‘fake news’ starts to collapse from the inside when you examine it up close. The Washington Post, in its war against Russian-inspired fake news stories, has repeatedly published untruthful claims about Russian subversion in the US. It would be stretching credulity to say that Post’s falsehoods are less fake because well-intended: as if the newspaper of the DC establishment doesn’t have its own propaganda goals, or its own record of disseminating intelligence falsehoods. In truth, what we call ‘fake news’ is often either infotainment, PR, rumour, celebrity gossip, military or state propaganda, churnalism, or a combination of all of these — tendencies that were already well underway in the old media. So in what sense are we ‘post-truth’?
- [ ] We could start with the lies we tell, and the truths they inadvertently tell. Why should it be that the shift in political imaginaries means that people are more likely to be taken in by the idea that Mexican immigrants are rapists, than by fuzzy satellite imagery of weapons laboratories? Both of these lies displace colonial desire in different ways, but the shift almost repeats the shift from global white-supremacy to defensive white nationalism: each different ways of preserving racial distinction organised around the signifier of whiteness, as a signifier of limitless being, omnipotence and plenitude.
- [ ] And we could go back to Freud here: because lying on the couch, one can’t help but tell the truth one way or another. Indeed, it is when the patient stops reeling off the banal facts, whatever status they may have, and starts to lie, that the truth of her desire begins to emerge. The lies we are prepared to speak, and believe, says a lot about our desires, often thwarted and displaced: and that is why correcting a lie, fact-checking and all the rest of it, is often useless by itself. Though necessary, it does nothing to get to the other place, the place of desire, which is the place of political truth. That is how a well-informed but politically inept Nick Clegg could be so comprehensively defeated by a facile liar attuned to the dreamwork of politics named Nigel Farage.
- [ ] This place of desire is the nocturnal side of reason, on the side of what Adorno referred to as “pleasure and paradise”. But if desire is excluded from politics, if it becomes simply a matter of management of the status quo, and of assembling coalitions to prevent major changes, then desires which might project into the future, curdle and turn nostalgically reactionary.
- [ ] That is the real relationship of post-truth politics to the new far right. Post-truth politics is the triumph of managerial politics, of a politics in which after 1989 the long-standing defeat of communism was finally registered, with an immediate drastic contraction of the horizon of possibility. As Enzo Traverso put it, “an entire representation of the twentieth-century”, in which the disasters of the age were also the ground for revolutionary hopes, fell apart.
- [ ] One reason why social media couldn’t ever the Shangri-la of a new radically horizontalist activism predicated on a democracy of writing, is because of what it does to our writing. Twitter, for example, aims to mimic in some ways the patterns of speech, especially with its multimodal, digressive tendencies -- ironically, it is the non-phonetic aspects of writing that come to aid here, above all the emoticon. But of course, it also reduces speech to its tiniest molecules, 140 characters, and generates such a rapid turnover of content that it produces a tremendous pressure to fire off concise, immediate tweets and replies. And since the only incentive to participate in a conversation like that is because of the likes and retweets, attention and approval, this tends to mean that to an extent, people are only paying attention to what you are saying insofar as it gives them something to say, for the likes. This results on an insidious barbarisation of discourse, fractured, ungenerous, unrigorous, grandstanding, bullying, trolling, performances of whiteness, masculinity, repetitions of trauma -- if we are artists of the self, think what selves, personal and collective, this kind of writing permits us to fashion. We somehow have to be both in and against (capitalist) social media, somehow swimming against its currents, it's timelines, its temporalities and tendencies.
- [ ] But even if its protocols and structures had anything horizontal about them, even if they didn't favour marketing and accumulation, it emerged in the shadow of catastrophe. The eclipse of socialism was confirmed, at just the point at which it is clear that the persistence of capitalism means possible species death. Parties, publications, union membership, ideological affiliations, confidence and self-organisation dwindled and fragmented into the scale of atoms. And politics without the possibility of a liberated future, turns reactionary. New forms of antisystemic politics are emerging to take advantage of new forms of social media, but they can’t by themselves replace what has been lost. Without acknowledging what we have lost, we cannot creatively adapt to what we have left. We need, as Douglas Crimp wrote, “Militancy, of course, but mourning too: mourning and militancy.”