The Sour Grapes of the Body Politics, Or The Troll and the Tumblrite, part 2

(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, The Society of the Spectacle

“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, Simulacra and Simulation

 

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, Cool Memories

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

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10 thoughts on “The Sour Grapes of the Body Politics, Or The Troll and the Tumblrite, part 2

  1. “In a sense our discourse has been rendered more extreme because the antagonism has been rendered more external and more abstract. ”

    I hadn’t thought about it that way. But maybe it makes sense. More external and more abstract makes me think that it is more disconnected and more dissociated.

    This could be an unintended consequence of the Flynn effect, i.e. increasing abstract thought. The concrete tends to be more internal and personal to the experience of identity, community, etc. As time goes on, the American population is becoming ungrounded from the immediate world around them and their minds ever more dominated by the manipulated imagination of mass media.

    “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 might have a slightly different take. I doubt people know what they want. I don’t mean that in a dismissive way. It’s just that society frames our thinking and constrains our imaginations.

    My sense is that most Americans don’t have much direct, personal experience of organic communities. This includes me. I didn’t grow up in an organic community. Instead, I moved around several times before I even got to high school. The town I’ve spent the most time in is a college town with a transitory population. My experience is increasingly becoming common, as urbanization grows.

    “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?”

    Good question. I don’t have a good answer. Alienation is all that many of us know. It is our experience of normal. The important part isn’t the question itself but the fact that few would ever ask it or even think it.

    • “This could be an unintended consequence of the Flynn effect, i.e. increasing abstract thought. The concrete tends to be more internal and personal to the experience of identity, community, etc. As time goes on, the American population is becoming ungrounded from the immediate world around them and their minds ever more dominated by the manipulated imagination of mass media.”

      You seen the recent research on the Flynn effect no longer showing up in States and UK? Basically, it seems to have stopped in the late 1990s. That has a lot of implications, and biggest being that the internet is not making us smarter despite the exponential uptick in written communication that comes along with the internet.

      • Yeah, I have come across the changes in the Flynn effect. it isn’t across the board. In many countries, the Flynn effect is still occurring. It is also still occurring within specific sub-populations, even when it isn’t occurring in terms of the average of all sub-populations.

        I hadn’t heard that the Flynn effect had stopped in the US. I knew about in relation to some European countries, although in certain cases it might have to do more with demographic changes (e.g., immigration). In the US, I knew that the upper classes had a slowing down of IQ gains, but those gains are still happening among the poor and minorities (“Essentials of WAIS-IV Assessment” by Lichtenberger & Kaufman):

        “Within the United States, Zhou and Zhu (2007) observed the Flynn Effect for children with IQs of 70 to 109 but observed a reverse Flynn Effect for children and adults with IQs of 110 and above”

        There are some complicating factors in countries like the US. The demographic changes aren’t just about immigration. There is an increasing proportion of the population that is poor and minority, the two demographics with lower IQs even though increasing. Poverty is particularly problematic, as economic mobility decreases and economic inequality increases. That will likely to take a hit on average IQ gains, but interestingly the IQ gains continue among the very demographics who should be the most negatively impacted by these changes.

        I’d add that the 1990s was when the last GenXers were entering adulthood. Over the following decades, GenXers would increasingly become the parents of the new generation. GenXers, especially poor minority GenXers (but also younger Boomers), had high rates of heavy metal toxicity in childhood. This happened at the same time that the conditions of economic progress had slowed or even reversed for so many Americans.

        GenXers had higher rates of social problems as children and still have higher rates of social problems as adults and hence as parents. The negative conditions of GenX childhoods likely will impact the children of those GenXers. When an entire generation experiences negative conditions, it might take a generation or two following before those effects are undone, assuming our entire society doesn’t go into decline.

        I was looking at Norway recently, for other reasons. Norway is one of the countries where the Flynn effect has stopped, at least for the time being. They are the largest producer of oil in Europe and the fifth largest in the world. They have become a heavily industrialized country and they’ve experienced the ill effects, as seen in cancer rates and lead toxicity. From what I can tell, the major Norwegian lead regulations for gasoline didn’t occur until the 1990s, decades after the US.

        Plus, inequality has been rising even in the Nordic countries. That is the type of thing that points to deeper changes. One would suspect that IQ would be one of the many things effected.

        Kids these days aren’t being poisoned as much by heavy metals. But they are being exposed to a wider variety of chemicals, hormones, and drugs than did people in the past. Young students are being given drug prescriptions at shockingly high rates. All of that likely alters neurocognitive and psychological development. Many have noted that girls are hitting puberty earlier and boys later, possibly related to increased intake of estrogen and estrogen-like chemicals.

        Other changes are harder to judge as clearly good or bad. There are trade-offs. Certain kinds of intelligence are increasing. Kids are more distracted these days, but distractedness has been correlated to high intelligence and hyperconnection. The younger generations are developing different thinking patterns, but the full consequences of that won’t likely be known until much later.

        http://www.wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2013/12/features/hyperstimulation
        http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/304474.php
        http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2016/01/05/new-study-connects-distraction-to-creative-genius/

        It is hard to know what that will mean. People who think differently will live, behave, socialize, and work differently. They will make different choices and take different actions. So, different results will follow. It does make one wonder.

    • “My sense is that most Americans don’t have much direct, personal experience of organic communities. This includes me. I didn’t grow up in an organic community. Instead, I moved around several times before I even got to high school. The town I’ve spent the most time in is a college town with a transitory population. My experience is increasingly becoming common, as urbanization grows.”

      Wealthy America has no remembered experience if they are boomers or younger. I think the ethnic differences in the effects of poverty indicates that is not true across the board. Still, this is interesting, urban communities are not INHERENTLY inorganic. Seriously. In Cairo, a city of 25 million people, I know my community grocer far better than I did in a city of 10,000 in the States. The same was true in Korea. But not true in Northern Mexico.

      • You make a good point.

        Urban black communities in the US apparently have maintained more of the organic social ties than have whites overall. It might have to do with when urbanization happened. For US blacks, urbanization happened within living memory and forced segregation helped maintain some of the aspects of organic community.

        In older countries, there might be an opposite explanation, in that a city like Cairo is older than is the United States. Old cities in old countries were urbanized during a time when organic community was more common and entrenched and so those older cities were built on that foundation.

      • The thing about these cities, Seoul, being another example. Sure, Seoul is like 500 years old, but there are almost no structures in the city older than 80. But the prefecture/gu structure of the city functions like a neighborhood sort of like the way Manhattan, Brooklyn, etc function in NYC, but on down to block and by block scale. You know your immediate grocer and neighbors for your block. New Urbanism is old Urbanism outside of the states.

      • I don’t know much about cities like Cairo. But I do know that they’ve been lived in continuously for a very long time. It wouldn’t just be structural foundation they are literally built on. More importantly, it would be the cultural foundation that determined not just how the city was originally built but also how it gets rebuilt and used. That is just me speculating, of course.

        Were you able to observe major differences in how the new areas of Cairo were built as compared to the older areas? Is there much in the way of city planning? Do they try to create some continuity in constructing new infrastrcture and buildings?

        In Seoul, what is the origin of the prefecture/gu structure? Is it traditional? Also, has it formed naturally because that is what residents prefer or was it enforced through city planning (or both)? Even city planning, though, could be an expression and enforcement of tradition.

        There is something different about a lot of cities in a country like the US. They are at best only a few centuries old. Plus, there was no strong ancient cultural foundation they were built upon. Many of the earliest US cities were either built as for-profit corporate ports or based on religious ideological plans. Still others were strategic military outposts. For the most part, these cities didn’t emerge organically over centuries and millennia.

        Living in Iowa, the inorganic nature of communities is even more apparent. This was the first state that was entirely planned out before any initial major settlements. It was cut up into nice square farmland properties with roads that met at right angles and railroad stops built into town structures. Iowa is the vision of a bureaucrat, well-planned human habitation and efficient natural resource.usage. It is the state with the highest percentage of developed land in the country. It is highly managed land, water, and human population.

        The most organic that the US ever got was some of the early Southern settlements, specifically in the former backcountry. The metes and bounds system is common in and around Appalachia. The rocky and hilly landscape probably contributed to it as well. The metes and bounds system is a bureaucrats nightmare and led to endless litigation back in the day before more accurate GPS-determined property lines (which kept lawyers like Abraham Lincoln in business). But obviously the metes and bounds system wasn’t used in the old Southern cities such as Charleston, the old part of town being highly ordered in design.

        I’d be curious to know what it is like in Georgia and throughout the Cotton Belt.

      • IN third-world countries, there is hardly a thing called urban planning. Egypt is most completely developing as they get. There have been attempts at private planning, but there is never constant illegal development and uncompleted building because it avoids taxes and is seen as the only honest investment within the country.

      • “I’d be curious to know what it is like in Georgia and throughout the Cotton Belt.”

        Depends on if the city was pre- or post- Sherman’s march. Post-Sherman march tended to be unplanned and sprawling. Particularly in central Georgia, Atlanta, and in the low lands. Old cities like Savannah are more like Charleston, which are on blocks and do limit the development within special parameters.

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