Wednesday, July 9, 2008

TV or not TV, there is no question.

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I've been reading a book called: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World by Francis Wheen. His thesis, captured in the title, is neatly summed up on page 193:

"the new irrationalism is an expression of despair by people who feel impotent to improve their lives and suspect that they are at the mercy of secretive, impersonal forces.."

This got me thinking.
Always a dangerous thing.

The new irrationalism is a result of the infantilising of public discourse by television advertising, and the careful tailoring of TV programming to match the key values extolled by television advertising. These are infantile narcissism, infantile greed, and hunger for an endless maternal supply of stimulation and sustenance, and the atomisation of social structures that inhibit the dominance of these values.

Television advertising, and the associated infantile narcissistic culture it projects, extols and aggressively enforces, is the single most powerful force in western society. Nothing is allowed to stand in it’s way. Not politics, not religion, not family, clan or culture beyond national ‘branding’. That Christian religious fundamentalism is on the rise again in the USA is a tribute to the primitivist thinking that swirls in it’s wake.

The “despair (of) people who feel impotent to improve their lives and suspect that they are at the mercy of secretive, impersonal forces..” is a product of two real factors.

• The first is genuine impotence: Powerlessness against a mass culture built solely around the most effective way of demanding and ensuring mass consumerism.

• The second is a genuine if inchoate understanding that people really are at the mercy of exploitation by factors beyond their control. This prompts an ignorant thrashing about for shibboleths and answers simple enough to be easily packaged and marketed. And what creates and renews a market for a range of phantoms sufficiently opaque enough to pin our fears on, yet vague or silly enough to be easily set aside in favour of pap nostrums and plangent bullshit. Genuine unease is both exploited and dissipated by the constant throwing up of paper tigers, straw spacemen, false prophets and fakirs.

This powerlessness is in part caused by post-modernism, a nihilistic, infantile intellectual fad that attracted those unable to become famous, lauded, or celebrated in a highly competitive, sophisticated, and mature intellectual culture.

Post-modernist deconstuctionism is a way of destroying the game by undermining the validity of the games parameters. A way of smashing the chess-board and it’s pieces in the face of a superior opponent. That a mature culture could contribute to it’s own demise by allowing post-modernist jihadists to gain the ‘bubble reputation’ by destroying it’s intellectual sophistication with nihilist sophistry must be extraordinarily pleasing to those who gained fame by doing so. It also suggests that the culture has passed beyond maturity into (possibly terminal) decay.

It at the very least suggests that public discourse has been debased by the puerile concept of the “free-market place of ideas” to the advertisers perfect fantasy – a world where nothing means anything more than anything else. Where no opinion, however well-qualified or credentialed, is more valuable than that of a twelve-year old couch potato with unlimited credit and the most banal of tastes. A world where the process of communication trumps content entirely, and anything can be sold to anyone without reference to logic, facts, morality or rational thought.

Evidence of this includes:

• The faddist superficiality of Oprah-level spirituality. Where genuine mysticism, with it’s qualifying rigour, application and discipline [equally important factors in genuine mysticism as they are to genuine rationalism] is dismissed in favour of non-judgemental, absolutely uncritical, feel-good wish-fulfilment. A na├»ve pandering to the precise conditions required to sell shiny new rubbish to the idiot consumer.

• Psychotherapy as a tool for self-discovery and self-development has been subverted, simplified and debased to the level of a tool for, and a right to, public displays of narcissistic ‘wanking off’ on emotion. Even the pretexts of personal tragedy and the potential for wider application of individually applied truths and life-lessons have been abandoned. Now Big Brother reduces human interaction to live-action manga comics, and a completely arbitrary morality imposed by a pseudo-rational disembodied manipulator of events. The only purpose is the most crass form of goldfish bowl voyeurism and the extraction of money in the form of phone-in polls of popularity and candidate extinction.

• The great geniuses of applied psychotherapeutic rigour and skill, such as Jacob Moreno, Carl Rogers and others have had their work reduced to providing a vocabulary for self-aggrandising exhibitionism, and cultic mass hysteria interspersed with advertising breaks at regular intervals. The wealth of archetypes in story and myth have become simplistic narratives around which entirely predictable episodes are played out on television, in movies and in sad, uninspired lives aspired to by those without the imagination to consider, reject and rebel.

The failure of mass education to maintain standards in the face of the onslaught of TV as a competing paradigm and social reality is both evidence and a significant contributing factor. Standards of literacy in particular have declined in the USA, Britain and Australia as English-language television has become more powerful, and more powerfully aligned to mass-market consumerism. That non-English speaking western countries have superior levels of literacy and general education, while English has become the most common international language is a testament to this. It’s not the language that’s the problem.

TV reality has replaced social reality as the common shared experience at all levels. Age groups have become market segments. Social cohorts have become fan-bases. Real school became Play School. A local community of ideas and conversation became Sesame Street or Coronation Street. Society becomes ‘Friends’ and ‘Neighbours’.

The once dominant elites who feel that they have fit their children to become winners in life through Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, become anachronisms in a world where their intellectual and knowledge based power is useless. Knowledge is power only if you can communicate it. Where the idiots have the purchasing power, ideas take second place to sensation and feelings (which drive buyer behaviour). And any idea that can be reduced to a sound-bite will never have the sophistication to deal with complex problems. The knowledge and intellectual ability that gave elites control of the levers of power now only isolates them as a small sub-culture in a sea of mediocrity that believes itself to be the pinnacle of a free society. A society that is free of thought, values, and the bonds forged through shared personal experience that generate real community. Where what counts in politics is feel-good electioneering funded by vested interest that pays for TV advertising, not rational planning, coherent political philosophy or economic management.

In the mid 1990’s Actors Equity and the Australian Journalists Association merged to become the Arts and Media Entertainment Alliance. This new union acknowledged and accepted that journalism and entertainment were now one and the same thing; that no objective standard for truth existed or mattered. I attended an Ethics Conference at which the committee appointed to review the Journalist's Code of Ethics reported. When I pointed out that they had simply taken the old code and watered down it’s principles to the point where there was nothing concrete or meaningful they simply agreed, without concern, embarrassment or even any comprehension that this was not a good thing. Whatever ‘good’ means.

Reality Television is the key proof here. The adulation of narcissistic self regard, and vapid, uncritical self love reached it’s apogee when it became accepted that any life was worthy of the same degree of regard as any other. When talent, artistic skill, intellect, achievement or any other attribute became an irrelevance in the right to, struggle for, and reward of recognition and celebrity. Thus the most boorish cretin can be regarded uncritically and with the same regard as the most profound life of selflessness, effort and achievement. The only modifying values that influence the base universalism of ‘15 minutes of fame’ as of right are wealth and conspicuous consumption. The more the better. Both entirely and iconically emblematic of the consumerism that TV culture lives to promote and enforce.

Intangible information products are the ideal. Music, film and video, particularly those focussed around the same values as TV advertising (brevity, direct appeal to emotion, hunger and manufactured desire - particularly desire for celebrity and social status based on ownership of iconic brands) epitomise the culture. They are endlessly derivative, endlessly reproducible from a single act of creation (or imitation) and therefore a source of potentially endless revenue with zero costs for reproduction and distribution. Intellectual property rights are the only rights corporate capitalism believes in and defends.

In music, TV, video and film, quality (however defined) has become irrelevant. The repetitive and derivative is the norm. Rap music being the most obvious, monotonous, and rhythmically asinine form. Which, not un-coincidentally, emphasises aggressive tribalism defined through primitivist behaviour, conspicuous consumption and ‘bling’. The mass availability of the means of production has debased not democratised production. It has become entirely secondary to ownership of the means of distribution and profit-making. The technology both connects, exploits and depersonalises users. Only sensation and fad-currency matters. YouTube, for example, exploits every possible source of content, all without having to find, produce or pay for it, while reserving control of distribution and revenue for itself. Conservative governments routinely privatise profit, while retaining the expense of infrastructure and supply.

Mumbo-jumbo hasn’t conquered the world. Idiot consumerism has, and it’s mastery of information technology to promote it’s core values, and atomise social measurement and value, and individual enfranchisement, has been the means. The glib intellectualism of post-modernism, entirely nihilistic in process and effect, has provided the last victory required to complete the conquest: the destruction of the means of intellectual analysis and critique required to refute and rebuild. That post-modernism has now fallen foul of it’s own intellectual destructiveness (in a tellingly short period of time) is a final proof, if of little comfort.

That the west, consuming most of the world’s resources, has been unable to defeat Islamist terrorism, which is essentially primitivist (except in technology that enables killing), nihilist and based on the cultic and hysteric for support, is a tribute to the enfeeblement of western culture by similar forces in aggressive, advertising driven, mass-consumerism. Keynesian demand-driven economies have been replaced by media-driven demand that ignores rationality, interest rates, inflation and even income.

The infantilising of the audience for the purposes of selling has enfeebled public debate. Over time it has repeatedly reduced complex, multi-layered issues to simplistic morality plays of good versus evil, where ‘we’ are always the good guys. It has dulled the public taste for facts, preferring only knee-jerk emotional opinion polling to considered rational analysis and the necessarily slow development of plans and solutions. Political figures play to the cheap seats, undermining government as a credible source of leadership. In all this America has led the way, and with a 24-hour global news cycle dominated by American networks the rest of the west is reduced to the role of satellites and local ‘deputies’. The military blunderings of the Bush government now has the entire world mired in the US political system and it’s posturing, meaningless rhetoric and corrupt military-industrial-congressional complex.

TV advertising decides US elections. Money buys the advertising. Ruthless, heedless corporate capital funds (and owns) the candidates and the advertising. We all live with the globalised economic and political consequences. Yet we have no vote. We are taxed by the economic fallout without representation in the forums that decide the issues. The cry of ‘taxation without representation’ that launched the United States is no longer heard, in part because it’s too unwieldy to fit into a sound-bite, in part because it is a heresy against the global dominance of American style freebooting capitalism.

Democracy is a complex process. It requires a set of skills that take time to develop. The struggle of countries where totalitarianism has fallen provides ample proof of this. The temptation to turn back the clock and vote for authoritarian paternalism in place of the uncertainties of economic change and social upheaval has been a hallmark of post-Soviet nations. It also is a feature of every country where democracy has been imposed by miliary conquest, Iraq being only the latest example. Democracy requires a mature and intelligent free press, free from ties to political sides. It requires an informed population with the skills necessary for debate that doesn’t descend into conflict. Which in turn demands an education system free from religious or political bigotry, capable of turning out mature, reasoning members of society with tolerance for ambiguity and flux, who are willing to engage in the process of social debate and development and shoulder social responsibility.

The process of dumbing down that mass-consumption driven television has achieved works directly against all of these requirements. And democracy has suffered as a result, as has it’s ability to defend it’s core values of plurality, tolerance and enfranchisement. Both against external enemies such as militant fundamentalist Islam, and against internal forces of bigotry, sectional hatred, and rampant special-interest groups. The simplistic hate-filled slogans of the Islamist terrorists have drawn a response just as ugly, unthinking and hate-filled from large sections of the American audience in response. Much of it positively gleeful at the chance to be as satisfyingly mindless in response to a genuine threat from a real enemy. And much of it emanating from the White House.

Those elements of the mass media that were an essential part of the democratic process have been weakened, trivialised and warped into infotainment. The free press institutions that questioned in the sixties were bought out in the seventies and eighties, and merged into entertainment corporations in the eighties and nineties. The ‘serious’ press that raised the big issues and galvanised informed opinion and debate have been marginalised and isolated by the dumbing down of audiences who have simultaneously been convinced of their absolute entitlement to easy answers and slogans-as-solutions, and the equal value of their uninformed opinions to those of experts, professionals and intellectuals. To equate every voice, no matter how bigoted, ill-informed, misled, manipulated or stripped of reasoning ability is to value all voices as equally worthless. And the lowest common consumer is the common denominator and exemplar of the preferred voice. The false logic of the “free market of ideas” is that it judges ideas on whether they sell, for how much, and in what quantity. It has pitted every voice against every other, while reducing every statement to the level of opinion. And opinions, as the saying goes, are like assholes: everyone has one, and everyone thinks that theirs doesn’t stink, and everyone else’s does.

All of which has effectively atomised the means of mobilising sufficient resources, social coherence and effective government to sustain the effort required to deal with serious threats that aren’t the product of demonising politically convenient bogeymen. The war in Iraq has led to the entirely predictable quagmire that those who remember Vietnam predicted. While this has suited the US military and the corporations that feed on it, it has diverted the effort and swallowed the resources necessary to defeat Al-Qaeda et al. Not to mention squandering the political capital, and reducing the popular will needed to continue a fight no longer seen as a guaranteed victory.

Unfortunately, unlike Vietnam, this is not America’s problem alone. We are all paying the price for the Iraq disaster. And we will all be relying on the same system for answers to global warming, with every likelihood that facts will be distorted and abandoned, corporate polluters will buy immunity at our expense, debate will descend into a shouting match that makes good television, (hysteria drives buyer behaviour in satisfyingly predictable ways) and resources will be swallowed up by vested interest and unenlightened self-interest.

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