Saturday, February 25, 2006

triumph of pessimism

Dick Cheney's hunting story effectively diverted attention from the previous week's media debate over internet privacy, and the intensified discussion of NSA domestic surveillance. Since then, the Senate has opted not to investigate the scope and legality of the program, and coverage has ceased altogether. Entirely predictable, and no forum for the curious exists to force the issue through the political/business nexus. With most people getting their news from the internet these days, the speed at which these debates move through society is bewildering, and has no effect. The average American now spends something like 13 hours a week on the internet, reading rapidly digested news, and filtering through online communities like Myspace (which also attracted much media scrutiny that same week). This bizarre social network and its ilk have introduced an entirely new dimension to American social life, increasingly complex, simulated, confining, alienating, and creepy (I count myself among the creeps). Claims for the emancipatory potential of the internet are curious, and ambiguous at best. Put simply by Zizek : "the more cyberspace brings us together, enabling us to communicate in 'real time' with anyone on the globe, the more it isolates us, reducing us to individuals staring into computer screens". This process intensifies. Tempe, Arizona now boasts one of the nation's first municipal wireless networks. New towers are being erected daily, and the city is now blanketed in a grid of public access points, available nearly anywhere in town (house, car, favorite restaurant, street corner, or the park). The next level of noogenesis. If we do not accept the revolutionary quality of these developments, this type of ubiquity may be seen as a new production of false needs generated by late capital. These anti-democratic qualities can be placed in a context parallel to the Google/Yahoo vs. US/China debate. Google has refused to permit the U.S. Justice Department access to millions of user search records, while at the same time censoring searches on its Chinese version, in compliance with the Chinese government. Rival Yahoo recently revealed the identity of a Chinese dissident journalist, leading to his arrest and imprisonment. Can these ambiguities be parsed? What happened to long-hailed potential of the internet as a harbinger of Freedom itself? Here was an ostensibly open network, encouraging debate and democratic possibility. In the 1988 Massey Lecture, Chomsky discussed the role debate plays in our version of advanced industrial society. In a free society like the U.S., it is actually encouraged, providing the illusion of a fully functional democracy :

"Debate cannot be stilled, and indeed it should not be stilled, in a properly functioning system of propaganda. The reason is that it has a system reinforcing character if it is constrained within proper bounds. What is essential is to set the bounds firmly. Controversy may rage, as long as it adheres to the pre-suppositions that define the elite consensus. And it should furthermore be encouraged within these bounds; that helps to establish these doctrines of the very condition of thinkable thought, and it reinforces the belief that freedom reigns".

Chomsky was mainly concerned with the news media, and could not in 1988 predict the world-transforming potential of the world wide web. But it seems that the web, despite the thousands of brilliant independent media web sites (ex. Democracy Now) with open access, has gone down a familiar path. The work these outlets are doing seems to generate no changes. If there is no real oppositional character to the further integration of human beings into a global electronic network, where to look? Mass political action? Street demonstrations seem a cruel joke nowadays, where selected coverage distorts their nature, and the mass of bodies is herded by riot police into tightly regulated corrals.

Why does individual or collective protest have no effect on the Real? The code, as a (now) autonomous, self-generated, self-sustaining procession, first disengaged human capital from any actual participation on the level of development, and at present, has liberated its need for this mass. As for (entrenched) figureheads, the illusion of power is effectively maintained, on an increasingly sophisticated level. As the liabilities of effective administration become asymptotically unsustainable, this illusion must be rendered permanent. The ingenious methods applied are so commonplace, they are barely noticeable. In fact, they become the present itself. We should not forget the more concrete element to this, the publicly unspeakable brutality of persistent and escalated class warfare. The new budgetary proposal takes a further step in this direction, with the unsurprising expenditure of further billions on the most expensive of luxury goods, quickly used, destroyed, and re-purchased (we all know what those are). The Abramoff scandal, Tom DeLay's indictment, criticism over the response to hurricane Katrina, UN demands for the closure of Guantanamo Bay: All externalities, all trash-heap newsreel. The media recognition of massive corruption at the uppermost levels properly performs its legitimizing function. "Leaked", reported, (re)-circulated as sign-value for the retention of perpetual, illusory politics. Absence of a functioning dialectic. How is this not hopeless? Zizek, on Jameson, on modernity :

"More than ever, Capital is the 'concrete universal' of our historical epoch....while it remains a particular formation, it overdetermines all alternative formations, as well as all noneconomic strata of social life...the alternative social formations display the same ontological attitude, this merely confirms that they are, in their innermost core, mediated by Capital as their concrete Universality, as the particular formation that colors the entire scope of alternatives, that is, which functions as the encompassing totality mediating all other particular formations."

...and Jameson, on the impossibility of multiple modernities as an alternative:

"but this is to overlook the other fundamantal meaning of modernity which is that of a worldwide capitalism itself".

The alternatives to capital, historically and in the contemporary period, are impotent to the degree that they posit their program in relation to the prevailing order of things (which they do...invariably). In a Marcusian sort of model, we have the triumph of "positive thinking", where resistance is pathological, or becomes a highly functional element of the system, mediated by linguistic mechanisms out of control. All we seem to have left, is the certainty (?) of imminent global economic collapse, and/or the eruption of explosive energy from the increasing percentage of the world's population confined to unbelievably massive slums, no longer simply a "Third World" phenomena. See Mike Davis' "Planet of Slums" for more on this.


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