November 22, 2015
By Jo Tavener
I am beginning this blog to share my thoughts on what I read or see in the “hyperreal” of the popular, mass media. It’s a space to reflect on how we experience our lives, so seamlessly bound to media representations that we often misconstrue them as real. It is not only the free market and Republican party that grow bubbles in which to live.
Between my awareness of myself and the world around me arises a multi-headed Hydra of interconnecting media, much of it misleading and untrustworthy, all of it framing what we see and how we see it. As in the movie, The Truman Show, this life can seem real—both for Truman, and for his audience, living vicariously through his scripted and melodramatic life. Life is a stage; we are both performers and audience.
The Truman Show’s circular representation of reality is a good example of the “hyperreal,” coined by the French social theorist Jean Baudrillard around 1981. No longer a copy of or tied to the original, media representations retain their own reality and hold their own truths. In the 1980s I found the notion difficult to grasp. Today’s media surround-sound makes it as clear as day, yet still we look through the glass darkly. The Matrix played around with some darker implications.
In “CitizenFour” Edward Snowden, explaining why he did what he did, describes the general tenor of life in the U.S.; folks working all day, then watching their shows at night. I assume he was describing his own life as well: lonely, fragmented, hollowed out by a loud, insistent consumer culture. His whistle-blowing was one way to crack the mirror.
More recently, a high point for many media pundits at the first Democratic debate was the moment when Bernie Sanders supported Hillary Clinton’s exasperation with the ongoing email scandal. There’s a shot of them looking at one another with warmth and laughter. This is the Democratic Party, it reads: civility instead of Republican rancor. I watched The Rachel Maddow Show the next night and noted how the moment had already turned iconic, transforming itself into the hyperreal.
The relation of the real to the ‘hyperreal’ moves in both directions. The ‘hyper real’ bends back on itself and enters the real through advertising and the mainstream press that in turn get reflected politically in legislation and personally in the opinions we form and, most importantly, how we experience each other.
Think about our image of Hillary Clinton. In her role as politician, can we honestly say there is a real Clinton not reshaped and hopelessly mediated by the political stage on which she acts? That grand smile of hers in response to Bernie’s comments seemed a tad bit performtive. And how could I not mention Donald Trump and the media circus he creates to the delight of many. The pundits are calling his act “Reality TV” as if their shows are any less scripted to entice and amuse, obfuscate and misdirect.
It is my intention in this blog to reflect on happenings in our culture, some of them obviously infused with hyper reality, others so deeply embedded in our cultural matrix that we hardly recognize their presence. I mean to connect the dots as best I can. I leave it to others to make associated moral judgments and find appropriate practical applications.
And yet, Culture Watch is written for the New People readers. I’d appreciate your reactions. The world moves too fast. We need time to reflect. I invite your comments and welcome your reflections.
Culture Watch #1
This entry has an historical and philosphical bent, prompted by the Atlantic Magazine’s “The Coddling of the American Mind” that speaks to the controversies surrounding Identity Politics and its unruly daughter Political Correctness. I’ll be suggesting that the American Jeremiad, a rhetoric deeply embedded in our cultural narrative of national identity, as identified by Sacvan Bercovitch, is an age-old way of thinking about our present, past and future that shapes the character of our politics of dissent.
The Jeremiad calls us back to the original path of righteousness. It evokes a moment of crisis to forge consensus and inspire action, inviting us to turn away from our degenerate habits before it’s too late and recommit ourselves to our founding values and traditions. First expressed by the Puritans, we can recognize its current use by Donald Trump: ‘our leaders are weak, our institutions are failing, we are losing our way; we need to take the nation back and make it strong again.’ In other words, we must recommit ourselves to America redeemer nation, that Puritan vision of the shining city on the hill, and end the internal threat to the nation. This rhetoric is, for many historians, the ground of our paranoid politics. It is also responsible for our tendency to see all social problems in moral terms, framing the issues as personal and individual.
Identity Politics and Political Correctness (PC), as I define them descriptively not prescriptively, are also rooted in the American Jeremiad. PC arose more recently in the 1990s on college campuses, attempting to codify and enforce behavior as well as thought and speech patterns regarding race, color, creed, gender and national origin. Arguments were made that freedom of speech should be abridged in some cases, much like legally defined ‘hate speech.’
We can see the outline of the moral, manichean universe, either right or wrong, working here. It follows the jeremiad rhetoric: one’s biases are a moral failure that must be expunged from the campus. Tools like micro-aggressions and trigger warnings attempt to silence certain forms of speech and correct specific behavior to protect the community and make it safe. Micro-aggressions may be unconscious figures of speech that can be experienced as having a deprecating subtext, such as relating to the female gender as “ladies” rather than “women.”
Trigger warnings are also useful weapons, alerting us to a book or film that might trigger discomfort. Almost anything could call for a trigger warning, from Lolita to Hamlet’s Macbeth.
Still, the power of Identity Politics lies in its ability to break apart a conformist and generalizing view of a culture and its mythos. It enables an oppressed group to find its voice, speak its truth and demand change within the public arena. Controversy over proper language and the narrative of identity is inevitable, inside the group as a process of definition, and outside the group in response to such demands.
Identity politics often exaggerates the difference between groups by telling one group’s story without referring to the larger arena where powerful forces are at work, dividing and oppressing us all in the process. Our shortsightedness prevents us from identifying our common exploitation. Instead, we rank oppressions or reject the thoughts of others as outsiders. Infighting becomes censorious and toxic. When feminist Professor Catherine MacKinnon typifies the first amendment as a tool of privilege, I am back in the 1950s when internecine battles on the left exhausted its resources as the state’s anti-communist propaganda did its best to destroy the progressivism of the 30s and 40s and rewrite its history.
The politics of trigger warnings and micro-aggressions have little to do with “coddling.” Rather it is a new iteration of traditional antagonisms, arising from the foundational ellipsis of Identity Politics as framed by the Jeremiad. There has to be a larger context in which we place our understanding of oppression because it is that context that created its very conditions.
Because the late 19th century working class was hopelessly divided by race, creed and national origin, it was unable to forge a unifying labor party and build a powerful American left. The political machines of the era used such divisions to create a partisanship that embedded itself deep within our cultural ways. Today’s campus skirmishes continue that tradition at our peril.
We need to fight for common ground and tolerate our differences. To begin that process I proscribe a binge viewing of “South Park,” to enjoy the ironies and satirical spirit that holds a mirror up to us all.
Note: For more on Baudrillard, go to purdue.edu for its postmodern modules
For The Coddling of the American Mind, go to the Atlantic
For criticism of it go to The Nation, The Huffington Post and New York Magazine
In my early fighting days I was a founder of New York Radical Feminists. Today I am a retired assistant professor of media and cultural studies, on the editorial board of the NewPeople