The following article contains opinions some readers may find challenging
Some of you, many of you, are not going to like what you hear tonight. You don’t have to listen. But if you do, you should know that dissent sometimes comes in strange packages … (Ted Koppel ABC News cited in The Guardian 5/9/11)
There are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say. (Hannah Arendt 1993 , 207-8)
Punningly entitled 4Thought, UK’s Channel Four currently runs a daily series consisting of five minute vox-pop contributions from members of the public on a wide range of controversial topical issues such as assisted suicide. Despite the fact that Channel 4, after BBC 2, is probably the most serious-minded of the major UK TV channels, the continuity announcer still deems it necessary to state before 4Thought that: “The following contains opinions some viewers may find challenging”. This is an apparently un-ironic parallel to the more usual warning that “The following may contain scenes of a sexual or violent nature that some viewers may find offensive” except “challenging” appears to be the new “offensive”. This is reminiscent of ABC anchorman Ted Koppel’s above warning to viewers prior to his interview with Arundhati Roy, shortly after the 9-11 attacks, about her criticisms of US foreign policy. Both instances stand out for their unusually frank acknowledgement of the intellect’s normal media status. The real forethought of both 4Thought and Ted Kopel lies in their recognition of the need to warn today’s TV audience of imminent, incoming thought.
Today, Arendt’s open question is answered with a resounding, but mellifluously delivered, “no” by a series of engagingly glib media intellectuals who screen thought both literally and figuratively. Whilst unapologetically low-brow media content does not bear thinking about, more significantly, purportedly serious media formats just don’t bear thinking. The media is able to display intelligence, but only in either reassuringly decaffeinated or predictably controversial forms. For example, Stephen Fry’s impressive brain is leavened by sharp wit and critically blunted by the diversely inoffensive formats to which it is applied; Martin Amis, an accomplished novelist, self-indulgently moonlights in the field of political philosophy; Niall Ferguson reduces the nuances of history to the status of “killer apps”; and, in an alchemically perverse reversal of the search for the philosopher’s stone, Alain De Botton sublimates thought into the gassy, saccharine idiom of the self-help industry.
In philosophy’s earliest days, Socrates was charged with impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens. Media coverage of the urban riots in the summer of 2011 assumed that the youth of England is already corrupted. Depending upon one’s position within a polarised political spectrum, the malefactor was either inexcusable moral fecklessness or the soul-sapping anomie of untrammelled commodity culture. Less debatable is the key difference between then and now – the contrasting degree of reflexivity with which the discussion of corrupting influences has been conducted. Whatever Socrates’s faults, they were at least mitigated by his twin aspirational philosophical principles of “know thyself” and “the unexamined life is not worth living”. By contrast, the media unreflexively perpetuates the conditions for the unexamined life to prosper with the consequence that a society ripe for irrational, unfocused outbreaks of youth violence is reported upon in ever diminishing circles of understanding. Today, if Socrates used hemlock to make a philosophical point, his death would vie (most likely unsuccessfully) in the public’s limited attention span with Amy Winehouse’s rather more pointless demise. Whatever corrupts contemporary youths, it is a safe bet that the culprit will not be excessive thinking.
To address the strained relationship that exists between intellectuals and the masses, the specific example of the media’s portrayal of violence, most recently the UK urban riots, is used in order to highlight in extremis the more general symbolic violence that much more matter-of-factly eviscerates conceptual substance on a daily basis. Our familiarity with graphic violence helps to obfuscate the media’s own generally unacknowledged contribution – the symbolically violent way in which its deceptively neutral guise obscures its methodical misappropriation and misinterpretation of violence’s underlying political significance. For the sake of the consistency and manageability, the media sources drawn upon are limited to the two most fondly regarded by the UK intelligentsia – the Guardian newspaper and BBC 4( TV & Radio). The examples they provide shows that consideration of the vexed relationship between intellectuals and masses needs to give due weight to how, the media’s standard operating procedure kills off intellectual endeavour much more unobtrusively and effectively than hemlock.
Influenced by the work of Slavoj Žižek (who as a ‘celebrity intellectual’ walks the media talk more than most) this article turns on its head Arendt’s question as to whether entertaining thought can survive seriousness. I argue that the real betrayal of intellectual values actually resides in the media’s most self-consciously ’serious’ content. More than this, making the normative assumption that to qualify as an intellectual requires at least some level of critical response to one’s social environment, it is argued that a heavy political cost has been paid for the betrayal of intellectual values by the media’s commentariat. Via sound-bites and a personality-fixated comprehension of reality, the dangers posed by the infamous military industrial complex have been replaced by the media industrial production of the non-complex. The result is that finding space for intellectual activity risks becoming as difficult as locating a spot to say the rosary in the midst of a Borgia orgy. For Heidegger “questioning is the piety of thought”. If he is right, then, in an era of such pathologically vacuous ideas as “the big society” and a “national happiness index”, we appear to be living so impiously that even the Borgias would blush.
La Trahison Des Clerks – Debottonised Thought
My feeling is that the term “public intellectual” should be stretched to include those whose ideas help to determine what goes on in the broad swathe of national life, not just poetry or the essay, but in education, housing, transport, architecture and so on … What we do have are people such as Mervyn King, who takes big, intellectually founded decisions on the future of the country … The most influential of our public intellectuals are those whose hands are on the biggest levers. For this reason, I’d nominate King as the most influential, closely followed by Michael Gove, whose thinking determines how our children are taught. Thereafter, David Willetts, whose ideas impact on how our universities operate. (Alain De Botton’s invited response to the Observer newspaper’s Cover Story question – “The French have always celebrated their public intellectuals. Why are we so ashamed of ours?” 08/05/11)
Mark Thwaite- “ You seem to come from a mainstream philosophical tradition …(not, say, Baudrillard on modern life or Deleuze on watching films) whereas I find myself more drawn to so-called continental philsophy. Do you ever read ‘the continentals’?”
Alain De Botton – “I am very drawn to so-called continental philosophy and my work makes frequent allusions to major figures in this tradition like Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. What I welcome in continental philosophy is the engagement with themes of everyday life and personal importance. The figures you mention, Baudrillard and Deleuze, aren’t people I like to write about, but I have read some of their works with pleasure. My real influence among the modern French thinkers is Roland Barthes. (From an interview on the literary blog site Ready Steady Book)
Given De Botton’s self-professed admiration for Barthes, it is appropriate that both sets of his above comments serve to illuminate Barthes’s conceptualization of myth as a modern manifestation of a pervasively anti-intellectual spirit – “what goes without saying”. De Botton intellectualises to the extent that he says what normally remains unsaid but places his insight squarely in the service of an uncritical status quo – the sort of “common sense” recently elevated by the British Prime Minister to the status of political philosophy. Thus, for De Botton, the abstract power of the intellect is reduced to naked political power and continental thought has a use-by date beyond which it can still be enjoyed but not heard. De Botton’s standing as a media philosopher is cemented by the seamless way in which his values match those of a contemporary media fearful of Koppel’s “strange packages”, as a character from Fahrenheit 451 says, “the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar”.
Significantly, for all its dystopian imagery of “firemen” charged with burning those books deemed offensive because of their challenging content, the most powerful message within Bradbury’s novel comes from his identification of the true totalitarian threat to thought: public ignorance. Much less frightening than jackboot-wearing book burners (but also ultimately much more effective) is the sort of unassumingly anti-intellectual climate enshrined in a media system that, as demonstrated by De Botton, sentences our cutting-edge European intellectual heritage to premature and de facto obsolescence. As Bradbury also wrote: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them”, or à la De Botton, just ensure that the masses don’t get to hear about them.
When the risk that we may be challenged to think requires either a pre-emptive TV warning or solicitous prophylactic filtering by politician-flattering philosophers, it becomes more important than ever before to re-examine the full extent to which the media has become an inhospitable home for thought despite programme titles like 4Thought. In a ‘debottonised’ media environment, anti-intellectual tendencies are distinctly non-confrontational but all the more effective due to their low profile, low brow, nature – familiarity breeds consent. If charges of anti-intellectualism do stick, remedial action is severely circumscribed by a subsequent form of denial – fetishistic disavowal. This can most easily be explained in terms of a phrase used in psychoanalysis to denote a blatant, but nevertheless deep-rooted, refusal to reflect upon a problematic situation – ‘Je sais bien mais quand meme’ (I know very well, but even so …). In practice, the media represents a vehicle for institutionalized disavowal. This means that a Chomsky-like provision of well-argued facts and figures becomes largely irrelevant. Drawing upon the ancient philosophical tradition of Diogenes, The Cynic, and latter day incarnations like Žižek, it is suggested that intellectuals in a media age need to find new techniques with which to tackle the “medium is the message” quality of broadcasting. Critique of conceptual content needs to be supplemented by adequate attention to the form in which that content is expressed – laconic irrigation.
Daft As a Media Brush – Selectively Picking Society’s Pockets of Violence
“There are pockets of our society that are not just broken but frankly sick. When we see children as young as 12 and 13 looting and laughing, when we see the disgusting sight of an injured young man with people pretending to help him while they are robbing him, it is clear that there are things that are badly wrong with our society.” (Prime Minister David Cameron speaking to young people in his Witney constituency after the summer urban riots, 15/8/11)
“I thought it was shit and he’s a knobhead, I don’t have a dad and I’ve never been arrested” (A young member of the audience’s response to Mr Cameron’s speech, 15/8/11. Both quotations cited in The Guardian, 16/08/11)
Notwithstanding the necessary amount of theoretical work required to fully purge the mass media of its more complex and submerged anti-intellectual tendencies (more of which later), laconic irrigation straightforwardly addresses the more blatant and egregious forms of uncritical media content. Thus, in David Cameron’s above statement, merely replacing the phrases “children as young as 12 and 13” with “bankers as old as 60” and “young man” with “economy” produces a succinct statement of the speaker’s unvoiced political strategy. A further prototypical act of laconic irrigation is also provided in the above young person’s response to David Cameron’s homily on the latest iteration of ‘Broken Britain’. Indubitably crude, the unnamed youngster’s analysis of the situation at least enjoys an Ockham’s razor-like insightfulness woefully lacking in nominally more sophisitcated editorializing. Thus, even those opinion pieces that criticize the UK government’s “Big Society” tend to do so in a manner which, even if critical of its sound-bite nature, still proceed to discuss the phrase as an “idea” worthy of the term. Because notions like the “big society” evolve to survive in a media ecology where glibness represents a competitive advantage, media commentators are particularly ill-placed to address the extent to which the superficial plausibility of phrases is inversely proportional to any essential meaning.
Critical theory’s slippery problem becomes how to find any purchase on this superficial smoothness with which media formats process and propagate fundamentally inane non-ideas. The innate lack of seriousness of such photo-opportunities as the Mayor of London brandishing a luminous green brush does not prevent it having deeply serious consequences. Whilst the media obviously does contain critical thought it tends to exist in a fashion akin to a newspaper retraction. Like a belated inside page apology, the critical response comes after the damage has already been done and its weakness is compounded by receiving much less prominence than that enjoyed by the original offence. For example, it wasn’t until Friday Sept 2nd , three weeks after the 2011 riots, that the journalist Evan Davis asked David Cameron on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether there was any likeness between “a youthful gang that engages in violent behaviour” and the infamous Oxford University-based Bullingdon Club (a socially highly selective student group renowned for alcohol-fuelled acts of wanton vandalism in restaurants) of which he and London Mayor Boris Johnson were members. Later on the same day, the issue was also raised during BBC Radio 4’s political debate programme Any Questions? – but in the form of a humorously pitched question at the very end of the programme. An audience member asked “Cameron said this week that ‘we all do stupid things when we are young’, would the panel like to share some stupid thing that they did when they were young?” The panel took the opportunity to respond with various jocular stories of their misspent youths that were appreciatively endorsed by a receptive audience.
What the mainstream media discourse represses inevitably returns, albeit in safely marginalised outlets, thus examples of laconic irrigation can at least be seen garnered from newspaper letters pages:
Michael Gove leads the Tory law and order brigade on the riots, warning Harriet Harman and Ken Livingstone against “relativising” the issues when they raise the wider social context (Report, 10 August). This is the politician who claimed £7,000 of posh furniture on his parliamentary expenses, including a Chinon armchair and a Manchu cabinet. When caught out, Mr Gove simply repaid the money and continued untroubled with his career. Will it be OK in court for a looter to offer to hand back a stolen TV or a pair of trainers? (Jon Bloomfield, Birmingham. Wed August 10th Letters Page – The Guardian)
A short answer to Mr. Bloomfield’s concluding rhetorical question is, of course, “no” – a negative response fleshed out by the judiciary when it sentenced Ursula Nevin, a twenty four year old mother of two young children, to five months in prison for later receiving and wearing a pair of shorts a friend had stolen during the riots that occurred whilst she herself was sleeping. Further important contextualising information to Mr. Bloomfield’s helps us understand better the deep-rooted nature of Mr. Gove and the Conservative Party’s objection to social context:
the [Bullingdon] club enjoyed a famously explosive dinner at the White Hart near Oxford in 2005. “All the food and plates had been thrown everywhere and they were jumping on top of each other on the table like kids in a playground,” recalled the pub’s landlord Ian Rogers. The part he found strangest was that each time he confronted a member of the club “they apologised profusely but offered absolutely no explanation”. (“Young, Rich and Drunk” The Guardian Friday May 9th , 2008)
The obvious critical response to this would be to question this privileged indifference to providing any explanation. While, as in this instance, the media does occasionally at least highlight the indifference, it does not do so in a way likely to raise politically awkward comparisons that are contemporaneous with the original events (hence the three week delay before parallels with the Bullingdon Club were explored). The media’s more usual mode of response is two-fold: it more usually either implicitly condones the refusal of the powerful to explain by sins of journalistic omission, or, it provides critical context only in order to quickly dismiss its significance.
The latter technique is illustrated by Guardian’s journalist Tanya Gold in her article with the self-explanatory title of “Be Bullingdon and Proud”. The piece begins with an explicit recognition that the notion of justice being blind has been betrayed: ‘“We all do stupid things when we are young”, said the prime minister, and this is true. But the outcomes of stupidity are different in Oxford and Brixton. Some go to jail for stealing bottles of water, and others spend a single night in the cells, before being plonked back down in a college quad …’. So far, so good, but after acknowledging that justice is no longer blind, Gold proceeds to promote a perverse new form of context-free class blindness: ‘He [Cameron] misjudges the British electorate, if he thinks we care if he was born in a rectory, a stable or a life-sized Sindy Mansion that has sprouted magically out of the fairy grass of Weybridge … He will be judged on his policies, and as for his background, well, everyone has something they would rather forget.’ (Gold, The Guardian 05/09/11) Here we can see a particularly free and open admission of the normally more subtle journalistic practice whereby politically important context is glossed over or simply omitted. This is journalism’s ideological processing away of uncomfortable political facts at its purest. As Brecht famously put it: “what is the robbing of a bank compared to its founding?”
Leaving Baudrillard aside – context-free journalism’s in action
… these are shopping riots, characterised by their consumer choices: that’s the bit we’ve never seen before. A violent act by the authorities, triggering a howl of protest – that bit is as old as time. But crowds moving from shopping centre to shopping centre? Actively trying to avoid a confrontation with police, trying to get in and out of JD Sports before the “feds” arrive? That bit is new.
… how can you cease to believe in law and order, a moral universe, co-operation, the purpose of existence, and yet still believe in sportswear? How can you despise culture but still want the flatscreen TV from the bookies? Alex Hiller, a marketing and consumer expert at Nottingham Business School, points out that there is no conflict between anomie and consumption: “If you look at Baudrillard and other people writing in sociology about consumption, it’s a falsification of social life. Adverts promote a fantasy land. Consumerism relies upon people feeling disconnected from the world.” Leaving Baudrillard aside, just because there is no political agenda on the part of the rioters doesn’t mean the answer isn’t rooted in politics. (Zoe Williams, The Guardian 9/08/2011)
Zoe Williams’s above analysis of the riots provides another telling example of the journalistic tendency to remove troublesome context. Although even someone from a Business School is willing to quote Jean Baudrillard, for the journalist, intellectual interpretation is unwelcome – “Leaving Baudrillard aside …”. Williams remains closed to a Baudrillard-informed intellectual insight – the twist that the rioters provide on Kant’s notion of art as purposiveness without purpose. In a distorted reflection of the society that surrounds them, the rioters embody purposive (albeit violent) consumption without purpose. Lacking a sense of purposiveness, Williams rejects Baudrillard, on purpose she refuses to consider the significance of the coexistence of anomie and consumption. Once again, however, much-needed laconic irrigation of both Williams’s individual conceptual blockage, as well as the paper for which she works, can at least be found in her newspaper’s letters page:
Zoe Williams ought not to brush Baudrillard aside so easily … The inability to differentiate between real events and those mediated via the TV screen is one of Baudrillard’s classic ideas, and our willingness to distance ourselves from events on our doorstep is perhaps one of the causes of the disturbances. To paraphrase Baudrillard, the London riots did not take place. (Stewart Harrison, Market Drayton, Shropshire)
When Zoe Williams writes, “… when people don’t have anything, when they have their noses constantly rubbed in stuff they can’t afford”, she sums up the riots pretty well. The juxtaposition, a few pages later, of the style of shoes that men should aspire to this autumn, priced £8,600 to £12,000, was unbelievable. The insensitivity is beyond belief. (Helen Adams, Leeds. The Guardian Letters Page, 10/082011)
Contra Williams’s, Žižek shares with the above letter writers a willingness to think through fully the significance of context. He makes the crucially reflexive point that:
The fact that the rioters have no programme is therefore itself a fact to be interpreted: it tells us a great deal about our ideological-political predicament and about the kind of society we inhabit, a society which celebrates choice but in which the only available alternative to enforced democratic consensus is a blind acting out. Opposition to the system can no longer articulate itself in the form of a realistic alternative, or even as a utopian project, but can only take the shape of a meaningless outburst. What is the point of our celebrated freedom of choice when the only choice is between playing by the rules and (self-)destructive violence? (Žižek London Review of Books 19/08/11)
A vital aspect of Žižek’s argument here is the non-debottonised insistence that a meaningless outburst is never just meaningless. An intellectually-informed sensitivity to the relationship between form and content lacking to the journalist reveals that the apparent meaninglessness of the riots is their meaning. The limited nature of the journalistic interpretation of riots can be viewed as a specific instance of much broader media tendencies relating to its simultaneous dependence upon, and misuse of, violent subject matter.
Do polar bears eat people in the woods? – understanding the media’s violent misunderstanding of violence
In the illustrated magazines, people see the very world that the illustrated magazines prevent them from perceiving … Never before has a period known so little about itself. In the hands of the ruling society, the invention of illustrated magazines is one of the most powerful means of organizing a strike against understanding … the flood of photos sweeps away the dams of memory. (Kracauer 1995 : 58)
Insightful as Kracauer’s above assessment is in relation to the early mass media, with the advent of a digital mediascape the paradoxical process whereby our mediated mode of seeing actually perpetuates barriers to perception has exponentially intensified. Kracauer’s characterisation of the ‘illustrated magazines’ creating a situation in which ‘Never before has a period known so little about itself’ needs updating due to its now anachronistic level of understatement. In our fibre-optic facilitated 24 hour news culture, understanding is displaced by the metastatically tautologous images and sound-bites: we witness spectacles (most recently riots) as spectacles to be witnessed. Our HD images, however, are high definition only in a purely technical sense. Only a matter of days before the urban riots in August 2011, a 17 year old boy died and four others were seriously injured after being mauled by a polar bear whilst camping on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. As part of BBC Radio 4’s lunchtime news coverage the presenter interviewed a previous survivor of a similar attack. The interview concluded with the question “and what did you learn from your experience?” A suitably laconic response might have been: “I learnt that in addition to defecating in the woods, polar bears also attack people”.
The media’s obtuseness when reporting violence, whether it be feral youths or tetchy polar bears, is part of a wider mediatized myopia encoded into the journalistic DNA of our purported “information society”. Routine media reports on spectacular acts of violence strike against understanding by distracting us from the recognition of underlying political problems. The constant use of violence as media content aids the institutionalized obfuscation of root causes – the displacement of meaning as the media’s standard operating procedure. Ironically, this process is most powerfully enacted, not in fictional formats in which seriousness and accuracy are, by necessity, subordinated to the demands of dramatic convention, but rather when the media is purportedly at its most serious and objective.
A helpful conceptual distinction with which to understand better the media’s role in portraying physical violence whilst simultaneously enacting a symbolic violence of its own is the one Slavoj Žižek makes between subjective and objective forms.
Subjective violence – is what we commonsensically understand by the basic term violence and is defined by Žižek on page one of his book Violence as that which is ‘performed by a clearly identifiable agent.’
Objective violence – Zižek divides this form into two parts:
1 Symbolic violence
This is the basic form of violence ‘… that pertains to language as such.’ (Žižek 2008: 1) To describe the most basic object, the words one uses necessarily involve a significantly reductive element. For an act of communication to occur at all, we need to generalize away from the otherwise overwhelming specificity of each and every encounter we have with reality. Failure to do this results in a psychological impasse – flooded with microscopically precise details, we risk adopting the position of the character Roquentin in Sartre’s La Nausée. Roquentin’s nausea comes from the discombobulating effect he suffers when confronting the gnarled roots of a Chestnut tree so directly it becomes insufferable. Normally shielded (as all language speakers are) from such an existential reflection upon the implacable treeness of the tree by the simple word “tree”, Roquentin suffers a crisis because he strips away the shield and confronts reality too directly.
The key political question that stems from the philosophical point that all communication has a violent element is how, if at all, we acknowledge the inescapable presence of symbolic violence in our culture. Although routinely and mistakenly dismissed as a post-modernist celebrator of simulacra (or simply dismissed out of hand by journalists like Williams), Jean Baudrillard’s whole oeuvre is in fact a dogged exploration of the unacknowledged violence that pervades our media system, or as Baudrillard terms it – a totalitarian semiotic order in which signs annihilate symbols. The distinction between signs and symbols is a crucial one – for Baudrillard, symbols exhibit ‘unbreakable bonds of reciprocity’ with their surroundings, whilst by contrast, signs are freed from such context-specific dependency and instead are pre-designed for exhibition. This means that signs make perfect fodder for a commodity-based culture, already primed as it is for the consumption of de-contextualised images – signs freed from their causal grounding. As Marx pointed out, “All that is solid melts into air”, or as Terry Eagleton puts it, capitalist society is “secretly allergic to matter”, and in this context we might add “and what matters”.
We have previously seen examples culled from the media in which subjective violence is portrayed with little, if any, attempt to contextualise its underlying causes. This represents the media’s unacknowledged form of objective, symbolic violence. The process of reductive generalization inherent to any act of communication but whilst intellectual endeavour seeks to retain our reflexive awareness of the process, in diverse media formats de-contextualisation occurs in an effortlessly unreflexive fashion.
2 Systemic violence
This is ‘the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems’. (Žižek 2008: 1) It refers to the predominantly unrecognized levels of force and repression that form a base level, frequently dispersed, but nevertheless effective and powerful circumscription of social activity. The conventional notion of violence is widened under the concept of systemic violence to include phenomena like economic coercion. The cleaning worker on minimum wage may not be frog-marched out of the house each day to scrub toilets, but the basic economic pressures of survival becomes an effectively powerful force in its own right. This force is not normally recognised as violence, but this is the point, that our political and economic systems are able to function with such ideological effectiveness because of their ability to continually highlight for condemnation particular acts of violence against the established order whilst downplaying the systematic forms of violence that same order enacts, as a matter of course, in order to exist at all.
Objective violence is crucial concept for identifying those media processes that have profound social effects but are largely invisible to the ideologically-assimilated eye:
Objective violence is invisible since it sustains the very zero-level standard against which we perceive something as subjectively violent. Systemic violence is thus something like the notorious ‘dark matter’ of physics, the counterpart to an all-too-visible subjective violence. It may be invisible, but it has to be taken into account if one is to make sense of what otherwise seem to be ‘irrational’ explosions of subjective violence. (Žižek 2008:, 2)
For the media, the chastening events of 9-11 represented the epitome of such an ‘irrational explosion of subjective violence’ and, paraphrasing Kracauer, endlessly repeated images of the Twin Towers collapsing enabled people see the very world that the spectacular TV images prevented them from perceiving. Predicated as it is upon this technologically-instantiated mode of non-perceptual seeing, in practice, the media is highly resistant to theory’s countervailing ability to perceive without seeing. Thus, in both the cataclysmic destruction of New York and recent urban unrest in the city centers of England, attempts to explain the underlying causes of these violent events are undermined by the symbolic violence of a media primed precisely not to understand.
In a society of the digitalized spectacle, the invisibility of objective violence makes it media-unfriendly. Typically cursory attempts by TV News to provide historical context to its items are dominated by metronomically metonymic images. Complex cultural histories become inseparable in our mediated mind’s eye with reductively familiar pictures – bombed-out downtown Beirut, emaciated African babies, Uzi-toting Israeli soldiers and keffiyeh-wearing Palestinian stone throwers. The media propagates a fundamental form of mediated violence as these explicit spectacles supplant sustained consideration of their primary causes – past and present. Thus, for example, the mundane violence that accompanied daily life under the pre-revolutionary Ancien Régime (the objective political cause of the subsequently subjectively experienced Terror) is systematically excluded from detailed consideration as is the background level of global state-sponsored terror necessary for the continuation of “normal” international politics by other means – The War on Terror.
The War on Terror of the Facts
The 2009 BBC docudrama Terror! Robespierre and the French Revolution illustrates the previously discussed media institutionalized inability/unwillingness to confront the true nature of violence whether in France over 200 years ago, or on the streets of Britain today, the systematic refusal to reflect upon the differences between violent symptoms and underlying social causes. Typical of the new hybrid “docudrama” genre, Terror! blends historical narrative with dramatic re-enactments of key events in the first years of the Revolutionary government as well as interspersing the opinions of historians, novelists and cultural commentators on those dark Parisian days. Dramatic effect was ramped up by using shots of the various contributors looking directly into the camera and voicing, in stentorian tones, excerpts from Robespierre’s speeches.
In Terror! Žižek acts as the agent provocateur. Alone amongst the contributors, he resists and contradicts the programme’s sustained depiction of revolutionary fervour as something that is unremittingly negative and demanding of unequivocal condemnation. Selectively edited for maximum shock-value, his enthusiastic endorsement of the Jacobin violence necessary to achieve authentic social change is repeatedly juxtaposed with the British historian Simon Schama’s emoting of heartfelt contempt for anyone who does not share his unreserved condemnation. At the end of the programme, on the otherwise black screen appears the written statement that 55,000 people died between 1789-1793. In a crude calculus of comparative historical deaths, and given the breathlessly offended tone of the preceding narrative, this is something of an anti-climax. The programme proves incapable of estimating a comparable figure for massively greater number of deaths attributable to the (admittedly less dramatic) diurnal grind of the Ancien Regime’s oppressive wheels.
Frequently accused of tastelessness, ever since Diogenes thinkers have put obscenity into the service of uncovering the much greater political obscenities that media-friendly intellectuals like Simon Schama are unwilling to see – the disowned levels of violence and harm visited upon others so that our liberal democracies may function smoothly. In Terror! quick to condemn the loss of life for radical political change, its talking heads tend to be much more coy about the loss of human life considered an acceptable price to be paid for such “non-violent” actions as the US/UK-sponsored UN sanctions against Iraq (1990-2003) although the evidence is in plain sight. On the US Current Affairs Programme 60 Minutes the then US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright was asked: “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima … is the price worth it?”. She replied, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.”
A culture dominated by reality TV formats appears to facilitate rather than lessen the various reality-displacement activities explored above. This is what enables the coexistence of a calm discussion of 500,000 dead contemporary children and dramatically emotional depictions of political executions that took place more than 200 years ago. Terror becomes an interchangeably inane term to refer to both French Revolutionary violence and the modern West’s declaration of war upon an abstract noun. This is the ideological process designed to avoid recognising the costs of objective violence, to reproduce, rather than question, “what goes without saying”. Thus, we have dramatic BBC 4 programmes about the French Revolution and whilst there are no accurate statistics for the estimated hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who died during and after the Allied invasion, the British media’s coverage of the invasion’s aftermath was dominated for weeks by the undeniably tragic, but equally undeniable individual death of Dr David Kelly and the related resignation of a BBC reporter, Andrew Gilligan. Meanwhile, in the Congo, Western media are unable to inform us to the nearest million of the accumulated death toll from years of conflict.
The strategic political de-contextualization of violence and its real world consequences is exemplified in the West’s War on Terror but it is also manifested in the self-designated indignados of Spain who also favour an abstract noun, in this case indignation, as a substitute for a focused political programme:
The indignados dismiss the entire political class, right and left, as corrupt and controlled by a lust for power, yet the manifesto nevertheless consists of a series of demands addressed at – whom? Not the people themselves: the indignados do not (yet) claim that no one else will do it for them, that they themselves have to be the change they want to see. And this is the fatal weakness of recent protests: they express an authentic rage which is not able to transform itself into a positive programme of sociopolitical change. They express a spirit of revolt without revolution. (Žižek, London Review of Books 19/08/11)
Likewise, the myth of “revolt without revolution” continues to be propagated in the media’s vision of an Arab Spring in which decades of (Western-funded) violent coercion are presented as surmountable by non-violent means and that to think otherwise makes one guilty of condoning mindless violence. In such a situation, intellectuals need to reintroduce the all-important political context of violence that the media works so smoothly to excise.
Conclusion – Hosing down the Firemen
Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy …
We’re the Happiness Boys… We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought. We have our fingers in the dike. Hold steady. Don’t let the torrent of melancholy and dreary philosophy drown our world.
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
In the context of today’s culture industry when Theodor Adorno’s grumpiest carping and Ray Bradubury’s most imaginative speculations seem quaintly understated, Critical Theory needs to find new ways to grapple with the media’s seemingly effortless ability to rationalize the irrational. Until this is done, an implacable barrier to genuinely enlightened discussion of society’s underlying problems will remain. The previous examples drawn from topical reports suggests that it remains a stubborn fact that mere facts alone (no matter how powerfully revealing) are simply inadequate to the task of tackling the demonstrable hypocrisy of politicians and the enabling role played by selectively myopic journalists. The danger is that the media is viewed as an essentially neutral medium, in which if they could just learn to become more media-savvy, intellectuals can still fruitfully engage with the masses.
Žižek is fond of telling an Eastern European joke in which a security guard suspects a factory worker of stealing something even though, every day, the worker just wheels away an empty wheelbarrow. On retiring, the guard begs the worker to reveal what he was stealing and duly receives the reply, “wheelbarrows!” Media talking-heads have long been complicit in pretending that there is something significant lying within the media’s empty wheelbarrows. Socrates’ belief that the unexamined life is not worth living is as true for the media system as Ancient Greece and therefore our critical focus needs to target the theft of the wheelbarrows themselves – the objective violence of a system that fills its reports with the paradox of vividly un-illuminating subjective violence.
Bradbury’s admonitory depiction of institutionalized book-burning at least implies the survival of a vestigial, fearful respect for the power of the written word. Fahrenheit 451’s truly dystopian theme is the degree to which book-burning becomes unnecessary. As one of the characters notes: “Remember the firemen are rarely necessary. The public stopped reading of its own accord. You firemen provide a circus now and then at which buildings are set off and crowds gather for the pretty blaze, but it’s a small sideshow indeed, and hardly necessary to keep things in line. So few want to be rebels any more.” Part of the reason that the word ‘intellectual’ has become the swearword it deserves to be and there are so few willing to be rebels is that the media has successfully promulgated the modern myth that the occasional pretty blaze actually constitutes a meaningful discussion. So, the next time you listen to a proposal for a national happiness index or experts discussing the Big Society, please hold a melancholic thought for the dreary philosophy the firemen don’t want you to read … but which they no longer need to burn.
Arendt, H. (1993 ), Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. London: Penguin
——— (1991), Ifa Divination: Communication Between Gods and Men in West Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
Bradbury, R. (1987 ), Fahrenheit 451. New York: Ballantine Books
Kracauer, S. (1995 ), The Mass Ornament: The Weimar Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Žižek, S. (2008), Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. London: Profile Books