Published on http://www.counterpunch.org
“A wise old owl once lived in a wood, the more he heard the less he said, the less he said, the more he heard, let’s emulate that wise old bird.”
Flann O’Brien, At Swim – Two–Birds
Who’s speaking, writing, texting, posting, messaging, emailing, and tweeting?
The answer given now to who is speaking would be everyone.
Progress has been made. A “going forward,” and judging by how often politicians and CEO’s refer to “going forward” in an optimistic manner, it seems that the present has a good grasp of what’s ahead.
We haven’t stopped advancing since the steam engine so we can reckon that every voice being posted, if heard by only a few or thousands of Facebook friends, or loyal Twitter or podcast followers must also be an advance. We’ve taken speech out of the Dark Ages and democratized it.
What we have done, or technology has done to us, is democratize mind, intellect, thought, brought what was selective and hierarchical to an “all minds equally speaking” status Anyone would have a difficult time in authorizing his or her own voice as more equal than other voices. We can no longer recognize any superiority of one speaker over another which means that we can no longer recognize any quality of mind and its knowing as better than any other, certainly not our own.
In a way we haven’t so much democratized our voices as privatized them, brought them into a melee out of which no voice representing common understanding is authorized. All voices from the Tower of Babel attract their own audiences. Thus, privatization here refers to a turning from “promoting the General welfare” to promoting personal expressions of personal welfare, the “General welfare” conflated into personal welfare.
This is disastrous, hardly any sort of advance except for enterprises that seek to avoid any prosecution by a public tribunal that applies commonly acknowledged standards of judgment. Those standards are now blithely challenged by their inverse without public outcry. That public outcry now lost in a whirlwind of personal authorizations of truth and reality.
The drama of that disaster is now visible in the Senate trial of President Trump.
Mind is that crucial frontier a plutarchic order made possible by a ridiculously transparent looting economics needs to own. We see ownership of thought in different forms in classics by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, the former ownership of mind via soma tablets and genetic wizardry, and the latter by that bugaboo of the American mass psyche, Big Brother. Cyberspace and its social media provide us with a new tactic: democratize all voices and reduce interpretation and understanding to a “whatever it means to me personally” status.
Flann O’Brien’s wise owl listens and the more he listens the wiser he gets. Unfortunately, listening isn’t in its heyday. After all, why should you listen to someone else if it can’t possibly affect your opinion? Not a problem listening to friends who agree but those who don’t have no authority to overrule your own opinion.
Neither do you share with them a common way of knowing, a shared path to understanding growing from a shared recognition of how words are interpreted, how meaning emerges from such interpretation. The President’s “perfect” phone conversation, so perfect that it’s the basis of the present impeachment trial, Democrats arguing that its perfection lies in its corruption.
But even if you wanted to be like the wise owl and shut up and listen, where do you start listening and to whom do you listen?
Probably right now the shortest route to a mental asylum is keeping a 24/7 watch on Twitter. A slower route would be strolling down Facebook. Out of its own mouth: “Reddit is home to thousands of communities, endless conversation, and authentic human connection.” And in a retrograde cave man tradition, pictures say so much more than words, especially if emoji are replacing words: “As of January 14, 2019, the most liked photo on Instagram is a picture of an egg.”
Two deterrents to true advance:
Firstly, we don’t listen because there’s too much to listen to and no longer any commonly accepted means to separate lies and bullshit from what will make us wise.
Secondly, we have no need to seek a common way of knowing. The axiomatic need of capitalism to replace the public with the personal has finally extended to interpretation and understanding, reducing both to personal recognition and determination. You have your way of knowing. I have mine. What is common is just common, like public transportation, schools, libraries, broadcasting, health care, lands.
This collapse in recognized ways of knowing may be an advance for our casino form of capitalism where chance replaces any rational approach, but we now see clearly that what we’re advancing to is a planet uninhabitable for humans.
Australia hasn’t stopped burning as the first decade of the 21st century breaks all records for temperature rise. About half of the American population sees that a man representing a low form of humanity is the President and may, tragically, be elected again in 2020. The other half sees a champion who, if elected again, will bring all those miscreants who impeached him to justice.
With no way for either side to convince the other that their way of knowing what’s going on is true, we are advancing at equal speed to climate disaster and to civil war.
Everything said and written is done by someone. The speaker is either an observer or a product. What logically follows then if we’re dealing with an observer is the question: Who, where, when and how is the speaker? We perform a kind of human physiography.
If a speaker is an observer, we need to ask is she, he or gender-neutral a present speaker or a voice from some period in the past? If it’s voice from past now transmitted in the text we are reading, how much do we know of the context of that voice? And, more problematic, how much of our own contextual understanding misinterprets a vanished context?
If the present, where in the present? The upper east side or Lennox Avenue? Bloomfield Hills or Livernois Avenue, Detroit? Culturally diverse New York and California or not diverse at all Montana and New Hampshire? What economic quintile is the speaker in and how long has the speaker been there? Is the speaker white or minority? Male, female or LGBTQ? Young or over 40 or over 60? Meritocratic achiever or drop out? Wage earner or living on investments or living on the charity of others and the State? Physically and mentally sound or challenged by both? Is the speaker informed and knowledgeable in a recognized credentialled way or self-authorized?
We can multiply areas of difference beyond these, the extent proving nothing if one believes that all such differences are cancelled by a level playing field of opportunity and by a reasoning faculty that can override all such differences. Afterall, Steve Jobs only attended college for six months. That example resonates in the American imaginary. The playing field is equal for those who get in there and compete – a ruinous meme.
If, however, the conditions you are in are those that Bernie Sanders describes, our playing field is much like how a Monopoly board looks in the last minutes of the game, then the level playing field is an ideal not brought to reality.
“During the last two years the wealthiest 14 Americans saw their wealth increase by $157 billion. This is truly unbelievable. This $157 billion INCREASE in wealth among 14 individuals is more wealth that is owned, collectively, by 130 million Americans. This country does not survive morally, economically or politically when so few have so much, and so many have so little.”
How uneven the board we are playing on is can be seen from a slightly different angle:
The net worth of U.S. households and non-profit organizations was $94.7 trillion in the first quarter of 2017, a record level both in nominal terms and purchasing power parity. If divided equally among 124 million U.S. households, this would be $760,000 per family; however, the bottom 50% of families, representing 62 million American households, average $11,000 net worth. From an international perspective, the difference in US median and mean wealth per adult is over 600%
On the matter of reason as a means to take us out of the bubble of conditions we are all in but differently, huge or small difference, we need to consider that our reasoning is done inside and not outside our bubbles.
Consider our bubble of conditions as reality frames, a framing of our being in the world from within which we observe and speak. More specifically, they are representational frames by which I mean how we represent what we experience is a matter of connecting word or image to world. How we do that depends on how we are positioned, on all or more of the differences mentioned.
This “chain of signification,” connecting world to meaning through signifiers, like words, fashions the boundaries of our realizing, a process of making the world real to ourselves. How we reason is subject to this process, not lord of it, not a way out, not some Archimedean leverage point outside ourselves that moves us against ourselves.
Nietzsche referred to reason as a strumpet, working both sides of the street, a shill that could be bought, a defense or offense available to the highest bidder. You could therefore trace any so-called impeccable reasoning to power in a surround that made it so. Not true of 1+1= 2 or the laws of thermodynamics or what effect gravity will have on us if we jump out of a high window.
However, none of this has ever carried over to those discourses from political and economic to psychological and sociological where the subjectivity of our life-worlds packages reasoning within itself. The idea that our sciences humaines are covered by our scientific method transfers objectivity’s reasoning methods inappropriately to our resistant, irrational life-worlds, each having its own reasons.
The American cultural imaginary has now brought into everyday life both the relative nature of what any speakers says as well as the strumpet like nature of reasoning itself.
You could see it as a sudden epiphany or a Dantean sudden entering of a dark wood or a Millennial post-truth advance like being “Woke” or finally entering a #MeToo world or one where the LGBTQ community is finally let in.
What we can observe all around us is that a rather sudden absence of an authorized means of establishing what’s real and true and what’s false and unreal has set our order of things, in every corner in of society and government in which order is a sine qua non, on its head.
We are into a politics of suspicion where what anyone says is subject to a personal kind of scrutiny wherein only our own opinions do the scrutinizing. Falling back on the security of our own opinions is not then an impossible thing to imagine. The temper of our uncertainties regarding our ways of knowing has pushed us to where we are.
Donald J. Trump has made good use of our suspicions regarding what anyone says. Quite simply, if someone says something that gets in the way of his advance toward autocratic rule, he says “fake news.” The culture is now prepared to accept that because, as I say, its riddled already with suspicions.
Why Trump’s speech is not suspicioned takes us to the matter of everything being said is said either by an observer or by a product, a manufactured mind. Observers become products when the way they real-ize, or connect word and world, is pre-fabricated by already existing powerful voices and forces in the culture.
Surrounding conditions of being in the world may not cohere and unite under the banner of critical reasoning but they do under the banner of power. In other words, the surround is never of equal forces but rather hierarchical, sometimes quite simply bifurcated. Us/Them, Our facts/Your facts; Our Reason/Your Reason. We are reminded, as Jean Renoir writes, that “the real hell of life is that everyone has his reasons
Our economics has fashioned such a divided world so that the “Influencers” are those seeking to preserve their influential positions and who also have the means in a spectacle and spin, volume and repetition culture to move “reasoning” in their direction, to their benefit.
We forge a chain of signification by which and through which signs all around us come to meaning, but within a hierarchical arrangement of influence, we don’t choose the meaning as we also don’t choose the signs. A semiotics drawn by an uneven distribution of power is set against us. Nothing can remain as it is but must be reduced to a sign that can be invested with a meaning helpful to our economics, our Market Rule, by which I mean here helpful to the bottom line.
Think of your car. It’s a sign of your prosperity. Or not. Or your home. Or your clothes. Why do the wealthy all grab the same signs conveying what their life means? If there was the kind of unique personal choice and so on, why wouldn’t we have some signs other than boats, planes, mansions, Mercedes? Why do you golf, sail, ski, play the tourist to the hilt, have country club and Mason membership? Aren’t these packaged lifestyles that signify in ways that occlude what choices you might have made? Who manufactured the signs of your wealth, or withheld any signing of your precariat life except to sign it as losing?
Your kid is a sign that must be brought within the signage of wealth, within a chain of signification that says your kid is special. The expensive pre-pre-kindergarten must be a sign of your progeny’s future dominance in our competitive world. Such privileged prodigy needs to play Lacrosse, study Chinese at the age of four, listen to Mozart in the crib, invent algorithms, and get into an Ivy and pledge for Skull and Bones.
The precariat cannot fulfill this signage of dominance and so their anxieties and fears have a dimension other than strictly economic.
In short, the chain of signification, how words come to meaning, is forged outside our lives of personal choices in such a way that the choices benefitting whatever way the wealth/power distribution tends become the most attractive to us.
If you have a situation in which a significant middle class tempers the extremes of both poverty and wealth, then the influence in any direction is something of a wash. With a wealth divide as serious as in the U.S., the needs of plutocracy, which are to preserve and defend a privileged lifestyle, shape a surround favorable to those needs.
If the surround is already muddled by a hyperreality both online and offline that confuses what’s real from what’s simulated, resulting from the needs in consumer capitalism to stimulate consumption and repress resistance, then who’s speaking is driven out of a human life-world, a subjectivity, into what Baudrillard calls “the desert of the real, into the arms of images, spectacles and signs. The speaker speaks the power fractures of the surround, or as Baudrillard states “the subject “becomes a pure screen a pure absorption and re-absorption surface of the influent networks”
Because we as speakers have less voice that is our own than the voices we parrot and at the same time are more certain of the uniqueness of our own voice, the gods must surely be laughing.
Someone or some narrative we adopt as our own speaks for us.
A celestial entity speaks through the faithful. A political ideology or an elegant mathematics or economics, an aesthetic, a stoicism or epicureanism, a Rational Choice Theory, or an elegant Market Rule speaks for us.
Because we’re suspicious of the thoughts of others, of complexities of thought responding to the tangle of conditions we are in, we now seek relief in one Master Voice, one speaker conducting a monologue of self-interest we can make our own.
In 2016, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders found two different ways of speaking in the language of Vox Populi.
Bernie chose the high road of reasoning. He critically analyzed problems and then proposed what needed to be done. Trump chose the low road of passion and kept those on the burn 24/7 on Twitter, the perfect vehicle for a culture already fragmenting thought into various short hand enabled by cell phones. Trump sent messages that needed no interpretation. He told people to fear what they already feared. Bernie, on the other hand, needed to convey via instruction a view of democratic socialism not to be feared. Reasoning would be effort, but the passions Trump incited were effortless.
You would think that with the clear illustrations of the disasters of global warming as well as the illiberal results of plutocracy, that the Vox Populi would adopt reason and rise above passion. Because, however, Trump has replaced the neoliberal narrative of the Republican Party with fear, hate, grievance, and terror, subjectivities have not been shaped by arguable narratives but by irrationalities of the passions.
As long as Trump speaks the language of the passions and the conditions of the surround do not diminish the hyperreality that our economics nurtures, Trump continues to represent what too many voices have become. We have an entire Republican Party that speaks Trump.