(Author’s note: Read part 1 first.)
IV: The Politics of the Alienated Is Alienating
Baudrillard was right. We don’t have a real political left or right. We have simulacra of the left and right. These put on a show and meanwhile everything is governed by the inexorable logic of capital. This is why I don’t get upset by the antics of right wing extremists. What they might think has little to do with what happens and why. -Michael Rectenwald
“… just as early industrial capitalism moved the focus of existence from being to having, post-industrial culture has moved that focus from having to appearing.”
― Guy Debord,
“We will live in this world, which for us has all the disquieting strangeness of the desert and of the simulacrum, with all the veracity of living phantoms, of wandering and simulating animals that capital, that the death of capital has made of us—because the desert of cities is equal to the desert of sand—the jungle of signs is equal to that of the forests—the vertigo of simulacra is equal to that of nature—only the vertiginous seduction of a dying system remains, in which work buries work, in which value buries value—leaving a virgin, sacred space without pathways, continuous as Bataille wished it, where only the wind lifts the sand, where only the wind watches over the sand.”
― Jean Baudrillard,
One of the darker implications of this for “democratic polities” (if such a thing exists anywhere on this earth in a meaningful sense), the politics of alienation seem to be designed to increase alienation, and to have litmus tests to which everyone eventually fails. This stands to reason because it essentially isn’t interested in fundamental economic change at the level of ordering an economy or defending even pre-capitalist forms of society. Even Bernie Sanders is not making such a point as he backs down on any links to “socialism” that more substantive than Keynesian distributive logics.
The shadow logic though is that spectacle eats up more and more of one’s political identity because political logic is functioning a like proxy for community, and community itself is a proxy for kinship. In this hollowing out, the easiest way to do moral sorting of essentially computer avatars and constructed online personas is a political sorting that corresponds with the class and cultural sorting that has already happened in US, UK, and Canada. (Here I frankly do not have the on-the-ground knowledge to know if this applies to commonwealth countries outside of the British Isles and North America).
This trend is not new–newsprint and television presaged it both dramatically and more passively–but rendered less passive by the internet. This glut of identity markers washes out in the discourse to politeness norms being taken as universal political statements, which is much of what language policing and the pro-/con- complaints of “political correctness” and “problematic statements” both reduce.
Still we are rendered “together” by our virtual communities as we would like or as anyone who has read the anonymous comments on Youtube or newspapers can easily attend. Our politics are without a clear polis–often I see people from India and New Zealand having very particular opinions not just on American national politics, which clearly does effect the world in ways that only the totality of EU, Russia, China can only really balance out, but on local politics and political controversies to which their situation is a best a dim proxy, yet it dominates the English language discussion.
In a sense our discourse has been rendered more extreme because the antagonism has been rendered more external and more abstract. But false pretensions to post-political moderation of the late cold war and the early 1990s do nothing to undo this: Trump is one example. Clearly not a conservative in most of the senses that matter to the GOP, he has managed to show that being a reality Television and deliberately courting controversy is a dramatically effective way to get free press and to dislodge competition. This, again, is not new: The founding father of post-Nixon conservative political coalitions was himself a figure out of the media, and know how to use “lost generation” and boomer rhetoric effectively.
Clearly, if we talk the terror management theory seriously, this has a limit to actually community politics because outside of virtue signaling and in-group/out-group regulation, this really can’t deliver on much materially.
A few darker thoughts enter ones mind here: perhaps, given the complexity of modern society and the increasingly obviousness of our limited autonomy, we don’t really want the organic communities anyway as they could make demands of us. I am hardly the first person to think this. First, there is more obscurely, Baudrillard.
“Human rights, dissidence, antiracism, SOS-this, SOS-that: these are soft, easy, post coitum historicum ideologies, ‘after-the-orgy’ ideologies for an easy-going generation which has known neither hard ideologies nor radical philosophies. The ideology of a generation which is neo-sentimental in its politics too, which has rediscovered altruism, conviviality, international charity and the individual bleeding heart. Emotional outpourings, solidarity, cosmopolitan emotiveness, multi-media pathos: all soft values harshly condemned by the Nietzschean, Marxo-Freudian age… A new generation, that of the spoilt children of the crisis, whereas the preceding one was that of the accursed children of history.”
― Jean Baudrillard,
But perhaps with less understatement, the novelist J.G. Ballard, most clearly saw this:
Orr asks Ballard about the likelihood of nuclear holocaust, and his response both predicts and undermines the nuclear hysteria and paranoia that would peak in the 1980s. Warning that networked technology and identity theft will become greater threats, he argues that we must be prepared for a coming age ‘where bank balances will be constantly monitored and at almost any given time all the information that exists about ourselves will be on file somewhere … where all sorts of agencies, commercial, political and governmental, will have access to that information’. (This can be tested empirically: who among us has been the victim of online identity theft, and who of a nuclear holocaust?) Compare with Alvin Toffler’s bestselling non-fiction book Future Shock, published three years earlier but in 1974 still considered a frightening, all-too-real vision of the future. Toffler warned of ‘massive adaptational breakdown’ unless ‘man quickly learns to control the rate of change in his personal affairs as well as in society at large’. He predicted turmoil on an epic scale, with most of the population struggling to cope with the psychological shock of a mass-mediated life. While Ballard is concerned about the effects of new technologies, he discerns a rather different outcome, rooted in his belief in the affirmative possibilities of technological advance. He tells Orr that modern urban dwellers are psychologically tougher than ever before, ‘strong enough to begin to play all kinds of deviant games, and I’m sure that this is to some extent taking place’. . .
Patiently, Ballard clarifies the true ‘togetherness’ of the technological age: people pressed together in traffic jams, aeroplanes, elevators, hemmed in by technology, an artificial connectedness. Protesting, Orr says she doesn’t want to be in a traffic jam, but neither does she want ‘to be alone on a dune, either’. Ballard counters: ‘being alone on a dune is probably a better description of how you actually lead your life than you realise … The city or the town or the suburb or the street –these are places of considerable isolation. People like it that way, too. They don’t want to know all their neighbours. This is just a small example where the conventional appeal of the good life needs to be looked at again.’ The exchange is significant because, with hindsight, we can determine Ballard testing the hypothesis behind Concrete Island, the follow-up to Crash, and a concentrated study in willed social isolation (marooning himself under a motorway overpass, and deciding to stay there indefinitely, Concrete Island’s protagonist finds new reserves of psychological strength in the process). Here, his interview-art is in full effect: running the test, storing the results, turning the tables on his interrogator. – Simon Sellars, “Introduction,” Extreme Metaphors: Collective Interviews
So if we are plagued by our lack of community and our politics are more signs and signifiers of politics than community politics, and we really actually want our alienation anyway… where does that leave us?
to be continued