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Personal Responsibility in the Wor(l)d of MouthUmělec 2010/1
Palo Fabuš | essay | en cs de
In the 2008 film Untraceable, a team of FBI agents is investigating a series of murders committed via the internet. The murderer ties his victims to killing mechanisms monitored by web cameras, with their suffering (and ultimate death) directly dependent on the number of visitors. Users watch the website fully aware of their role, but visitor levels nevertheless continue to increase. The viewer is thus posed with a moral dilemma, which can be interpreted in at least two entirely opposite ways. The first interpretation leads us to contemplate the distribution of responsibility – who is at fault: the website’s author, its visitors, or the technology of the internet? The second interpretation sees the film as Hollywood government propaganda, whose purpose it is to create popular consent with government intrusion into citizens’ privacy.
These two interpretations can easily be used to represent the two extremes in today’s view
of who is responsible for the state of the world, the delegation of responsibility for various issues, and personal attitudes as to their potential solution. This essay aims to show that, in today’s discussions, the second interpretation is given too much weight at the expense of the first.
As our starting point, let us take the clearly visible and radical change in the distribution of power and, by extension, responsibility. Traditional thinking, according to which we used to delegate responsibility onto established centers of power, is becoming a thing of the past. On the one hand, former sources of social criticism are disappearing; on the other hand, criticism is becoming an inseparable part of everyday life. Interwoven into even the most banal decisions, dissatisfaction represents an encapsulated cultural mode that has practically become a way of life. Today, a consciously constructed identity cannot do without a basic admixture of cynicism and a declaration of aloofness.
The term “post-critical era” describes an era that, essentially, is universally critical but that lacks a sense of responsibility. This characteristic of the post-critical era results from three historical processes: the transformation of authority and the related abandonment of transcendental ideals, the narcissistic merger of the individual with the world, and the overlapping of the sociosphere1 with the ubiquitous media – these are the processes that we will analyze here.
To Live Media
Contemporary sociology is essentially in agreement that the historical processes being discussed here trace their beginnings to the early modern era. In the interest of a more clear distinction, one important watershed moment are the social changes after World War II. 2
One of these processes is the radical increase in the number of mediated experiences in the life of the individual.3 With the advent of television and the discovery of leisure time, the individual’s interest in the world beyond his most urgent needs (and far outside his actual existence in space-time) has taken on unprecedented proportions. The logic of newly conquered territories – which left-wing criticism has endowed with forceful terminology such as commodification,4 reification, 5 or (later) spectacularization – affects the individual’s relationship to the world even outside the boundaries of the market, in particular when it comes to his direct experiences. This is the logic behind the success of personalized media such as the still or movie camera and later the blog. This logic, which over time we have adopted as our own, explains the increased tendency to view personal experience through the lens of media formats such as film or music video – or more generally, visual composition and narrative variation.6 Without posing any resistance, we have adopted a whole range of fictional and real figures from the world of media as representatives of typified values. We use our media-image-saturated imagination7 for self-projection and for managing the impression we make on others. We interpret the events that we have experienced first-hand or about which we are informed by the media in line with the mass media’s semantic framing.8 Last but not least, when communicating with our surroundings we have learned to identify a certain “medianess” and to proclaim our detachment from it.9 Over the past half-century, the media’s grammar has made inexorable inroads into direct experience and universal aestheticization. This process can be understood as more than merely a kind of surrender – all of this is happening in favor of transferability and comprehensibility. By this I mean the creation of bridges between symbolically distant social groups and individuals. Homogenization and differentiation are two complementary sources of motion in culture. And although this interpretation tempts us to do so, the media’s influence on audiences is far from universal. Especially among the younger generations, we can observe the adoption of media as a diverse resource for personal and often creative needs, thus completing our picture of the relationship between the media and the public as being a closed circuit.
We may identify a certain symmetry in the dichotomy of the media’s message and the context in which the media is used: as we have already said, not only does the media allow us to “see” beyond the boundaries of our immediate experiences, but it also occupies the last available gaps in space-time left to the individual over the course of his day. We are thus witnessing the effective and almost total overlap of the mediasphere and the sociosphere, with human relationships and the exchange of even the most banal messages passing through a layer of the internet and mobile technologies.
To summarize, when combined with the logic described above, the fact of being available “always and everywhere” represents a media saturation of such intensity that it is more effective for us to think in terms of media landscapes or media ecologies, and to view the role of the viewer or user as constant and uninterrupted.10 We think media, we live media.
The atrophy of authority
Burnt onto the retina of culture looms the paternal figure of authority – political, treacherous,
on the lookout for personal enrichment through the abuse of power, because (as we know) power corrupts. However, behind this scandal-ridden silhouette magnified by the media’s lens, we find a relentlessly pummeled figure with an ever decreasing room for maneuver, something that politicians can “cover up” only by carefully building their credibility and attractiveness.
Over the past fifty years, the role and power of authority has been fundamentally transformed, as have our attitudes towards it; however, our behavior towards and our understanding of our new relationship with it are still lagging behind. This decline in credibility has affected not only all subjects of social life, including institutions, but grand ideological systems as well. Fukuyama’s “End of History” coincides with the end of grand ideologies. In the post-ideological era, even politics has succumbed to the widespread habit of spectacularization as it seeks to make up for its losses by adopting PR tactics and creating political products. Manipulation no longer takes place in an oppressive manner, but via sophisticated seduction. The Orwellian view of the world has been replaced by Huxley’s vision of a “Brave New World.” In the same vein, white lab coats no longer engender the kind of instant trust that they did fifty years ago. Everything is valid only until revoked; anyone who mentions respect and reverence exposes himself to the risk of ridicule, and everyday insecurity shrouds itself in a protective layer of irony in the same way that adopting an air of blasé attitude at the end of the 19th century represented a way of preserving personal dignity in the face of one’s inability to process and evaluate all the overwhelming new phenomena.
Above all, there are apparently two contradictory tensions at work here. One requirement for gaining and holding on to authority is the ability to control how authority is presented – i.e. control over what is public and what is private. The media saturation of our lifeworlds increases authorities’ pervasiveness and range of communication while at the same time significantly reducing the extent to which they can control their own media image.11 These conditions have given rise to new forms of authority and have made life more complicated for some of the older forms. As a result, the past few decades have seen the emergence of celebrities, i.e. people famous for being famous. They appear in advertisements and entertainment shows and give magazine interviews just because they are famous from other media. With the emergence of the web, they have been joined by so-called microcelebrities.
In the same way, we can talk about the partial democratization of what kinds of people appear in the mass media. Umberto Eco divides the history of television into two periods. During the period of „archeotelevision“ (prior to the 1980s), in order for someone to appear on TV, he or she had to have some kind of merit, some kind of status. People appeared on television in their Sunday best, wearing a tie, and they spoke formally. The era of „neotelevision“ that followed is characterized by the appearance of ordinary people, with an informal demeanor and casual dress. In an echo of the critical debates on mass culture in the 1950s and ‘60s, we come across references to tabloidization, infotainment, and the “privatization of public space”. But this is just one point of view; a viewpoint that fails to properly appreciate the role of the audience, which – sitting in front of the television – is many things, but not passive.
The rise of critical audiences
The drastic decline in the volume of non-media experiences has made the media a more everyday phenomenon. Media experience itself is losing some of its former sanctity. The morning ritual of reading the newspaper over one’s coffee need not die out altogether, but we definitely do not approach it as – in the words of Marshall McLuhan – slipping into a warm bath. Their tendency to totally overlap with our lifeworlds secretly makes them more powerful – indirectly, latently.
On the other hand, the direct power of the mass media, with its easily identifiable characteristics, has been declining on several fronts at once. Today’s media companies are fighting for the viewer’s attention not only with players from within their sector, but they are also losing a percentage to the new media (i.e. alternative media, group media, and fringe media incapable of a real mobilization) and last but not least other ways of spending one’s leisure time, whose range of possibilities has never been as broad as it is today. Today’s media consumers are far more critical of the media’s message and are far from being a clueless, uniform, and easily manipulated herd. The tendency to maintain one’s distance, to ironize, to be choosy or even spoiled is one everyday aspect of our personal relationship with the media and media content. Culturally encapsulated criticism takes many forms, whether through guilty pleasures of harlequin readers, channel-flipping, or the popular vision of a Big Brother – regardless of whether this threat is rational or not. Face to face with public reflection, political decisions framed by the concept of a Big Brother are more difficult to defend. At the same time, today just about everybody will claim that advertising has no influence on them, which results from the fact that the threat of manipulation is permanently and deeply ingrained in people. Even media audiences are maturing and are no longer as naive as they were in the early days of radio and television. The uncertain position of the mass media is also confirmed by the view from the other side, the owners. Especially the big players in the media industry are struggling to survive from one day to the next, always worried about declining ratings. Today, any sense of security or the ability to survive on the market has nothing to do with a company’s size, but with its ability to skillfully respond to changing audience moods. In a recent interview, the director of the most-watched Slovak television station stated that, a few years ago, his company worked with six-month ratings surveys; today he receives a text message on his mobile phone every morning telling him the latest people meter figures, which can be used to make prompt and targeted adjustments in the programming schedule in order to reflect any drop in ratings. But flexibility is hardly a cure-all: as always (and in fact more than at anytime else), the path to success requires a stable identity of a company that customers will gladly return to in the future. Continuous branding and prompt responses thus result in the ideal of a “fluid stability.” In other words, today’s mass media is constantly jumping from one foot onto the other in an effort at holding on to its position, which can no longer be taken for granted the way it was in the good old days. Understandably, this has an impact on the condition under which today’s mass media “produces” authorities, in particular in competition with the new media, which today creates the ideal conditions for the life of microcelebrities who enjoy “only” several hundred repeat viewers, unless they happen to be a one-hit-wonder; the sudden discovery and rapid disappearance of microcelebrities gives their ephemeral lives a suitably hectic dynamic. However, a similar typology of popularity limits us to just a few graspable promontories. Between Johnny Depp and Joe Blow there stretches a continuum of declining impact and popularity. The social sphere being addressed by this essay is located on that part of the spectrum closest to the individual and small groups. The problem this text is trying to call attention to results from our habit of looking only at the other end of the spectrum – at the atrophied centers of power.
Narcissism and media ontology
Today’s individualization is the result (and at the same time, origin) of a social order in which,
according to Zygmunt Bauman, the added value of “combined forces” is visible only with difficulty. Today, we are most likely to come across collectivity in places where the focus is on leisure time and the formation of identity. We don’t need to be the best; it is enough not to fall behind, and to be legitimate. There exist an immense number of social roles that the individual can adopt, and only a small fraction of them relate to employment, meaning that social life today does not revolve around work but around consumption in the broadest meaning of the word. The individual’s significance in society began to increase much earlier than we will be interested in here, which is why we are for now focusing on the final phase of this development, which is most closely described by Lasch’s concept of the culture of narcissism. It is a popular misconception that the narcissist is guided by self-love. The opposite is true: at a time when the individual is no longer born into the world with a prescribed role, a narrow range of roles and family ties that bind, it is purely up to him to decide what to become in life; he is “sentenced to freedom.” He first has to build his identity, which is why he experiences personal emptiness and an unshakable urge to merge with the world. Not self-love, but self-hate is what he is trying to cover up with his ever more insatiable consumption of the world in a vain attempt at finding his lost unity with his mother’s womb and rediscovering the sense of omnipotence from the time before the “mirror stage” when the child realizes that it and the world are not One. The narcissist’s goal is to cover up this emptiness of self-realization by seeking out experiences where “being” prevails over “having,” where the accumulation of things is primarily a tool for the construction of identity. In a narcissistic culture, everything is subject to reflection and everything needs to be shared with everyone else. Jaromír Volek, Czech media sociologist, says that communication in itself has become a social virtue. This dynamic can be easily illustrated by looking at the latest communications tools and platforms such as social media (Facebook, MySpace...), although it is primarily expressed by the appearance of regular people in the mass media, as we have already described above. Even personal media such as blogs had their “traditional” precursors, as confirmed by the existence of 20,000 to 50,000 hand-copied zines in the United States as late as the mid-1990s, whose purpose was the idolization of their authors and their authors’ interests.
The narcissist feels the need to constantly call attention to himself, or he will “disappear.”
Behind each message addressed “to the world,” there lurks the need to cry out “I’m here, I’m still here” (see On Kawara and his “Today” series) – a need that springs forth from our innermost ontological essence. Blank paper and a pen, a bare wall, or the immediacy of an online diary without a specific purpose are always expressions of the inner drive to leave a personal imprint – be it in the form of one’s name, a greeting (or a vulgarity, which is merely the conscious refusal thereof), or a more sophisticated manifesto (which nevertheless springs from the same motivation).
In the absolute majority of cases when a beginning programmer is first assigned the task to write something on the screen, it will be a variation on “Hello, world,” which appears in all computer programming textbooks. Statements or expressions ranging from spontaneous writings on the wall to carefully planned graffiti, from vulgar scribblings in public lavatories to culture jamming, from personal websites to Facebook statuses – these are all different attempts at self-actualization by leaving a trace, attempts at the individuation of the external world, like writing a postcard or purchasing a souvenir – the “I was” implicit in “I was here.” Whether it is the banal marking of the public space (mediated and direct) or expressions motivated by political events such as the student graffiti in Prague during the Russian invasion, the individual is taking a step out into the world, taking a stand against his own transience. That is why today, when the boundary between the mediasphere and the sociosphere is beginning to disappear, the old equation of “being in the media = being famous” no longer applies; today, when anybody can place his Self in the media, the new equation is “being in the media = being.” In his 1985 novel White Noise, Don DeLillo describes a situation in which a father and his daughter arrive at a small-town airport to pick up her mother. Confronted by the crowd of dazed people getting of the plane – which had to make an emergency landing – the daughter asks her father: where is the media, where are the journalists? After the father answers that there isn’t any media in such a small town, the daughter wonders: “They went through all that for nothing?”
Everyone with everyone
Although regional media – media that follows narrow topics for a small audience – existed before, back then the everyday experience of the individual and his sources of knowledge about the world could still be easily divided into media and non-media. Topics or people that appeared in the media automatically acquired a certain status and legitimacy; information in the media had greater import. On the other hand, opinions, information, and attitudes were spread among people through direct contact – at home, at work, at the pub. Thanks to the chasm between these two worlds, there existed indicators that differentiated what was important from what was not, authority from the anonymous audience, high culture from low,12 producer from consumer. There was a clear division between the powerful and the powerless, between Us and Them or Me and Them. “They” were responsible for important political decisions, “they” were the guarantors of taste and morals. Anyone outside this elite circle would naturally feel powerless, and would blame the ruling elite for the state of the world. Although this gap has long been filled and the media interspace plays an increasingly greater role, the problem today arises when we continue to cling to this duality and delegate responsibility onto our faded elites. The fact that this duality no longer functions can be seen in the transformation of communication flows in society: let us imagine the entire quantity of social communication as a triangle whose base is formed by undifferentiated, anonymous audiences, with authorities and mass media gathered at the top. The chasm between the top and the base results from the immense, overwhelming top-to-bottom communications flow. Bottom-up expressions of the power of audiences were represented by various forms of choice, including polls and the selection of which media content to watch.13 Communication between the top and the base of this triangle continues to be an important factor, but it has to share a significant amount of attention with communication flows that bypass the top. Communication along and among the base continues to increase in importance; people are talking amongst themselves, circumventing the original centers of mass communication. Although this was not fully possible until the advent of the new media, the foundations for this state of affairs were laid by the mass media itself when it began presenting regular people on television, radio, and in print: reality shows, talk shows, human interest stories and other genres, usually mixed with more traditional forms of tabloid news. It is worth noting that we are essentially seeing the realization of what Bertold Brecht proposed in his essay “The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication”14 – altering radio receivers so that they can also be used to broadcast. Brecht believed that this approach would enable people to inform, educate and entertain themselves, although he himself admitted that it was a utopian vision. In the first issue of Radical Software magazine,15 Nam June Paik suggests the idea of an “Instant Global University,” which he envisions as a world-wide community of individuals who would send each other instructional videos by mail. It is difficult not to speculate what the “father of video art” would have said about YouTube. He may have been shocked to learn that the videos that he envisioned for IGU form only a tiny fraction of its content. Services such as YouTube have already become a frequent object of derision because of the volume of alleged junk they offer. As Patricia G. Lange has noted, critics tend to forget that a video’s quality is not always an important factor in its function,16 which is more social than aesthetic or educational – just as these two functions are essentially secondary or entirely unimportant when it comes to holiday snapshots, which again brings us back to the merger of the mediasphere with the sociosphere.
Critical audiences and the authority of the individual
An interpretation of this situation is anything but unambiguous, and discussions on the topic often become polarized. At one end of the spectrum there is enthusiasm for the democratization of social communication, at the other end there is fear of the death of the intellectual, the end of criticism, and the transformation of politics into pure PR theater. In 1962, Jürgen Habermas published The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, in which he criticized the culture industry because, in his opinion, it distracts attention from public issues; people only want to be entertained, leading to the decline of the public sphere. One example is infotainment. He saw the main problem in the private sphere’s infiltration of the media, i.e. in the privatization of public space. In a preface to the 1990 re-edition, however, he reevaluates his sweeping criticism, admitting that even the so-called mass audience has a potential for criticism and that popular culture has a political dimension. Last but not least, we are seeing not only the rise of audiences’ capacity for reflection, but also increased reflection upon the audience’s capacity for reflection and the marginalization of authorities, hand in hand with the growth, over the past few decades, of popular culture’s potential for criticism.
Thanks to blogs, social media, and amateur replica of traditional media (how difficult today is it to publish a book or magazine, produce television or radio, or print posters?), individuals are more visible and more powerful. But have they become commensurately more responsible? And what exactly should they be responsible for? Let us take a closer look.
The individual’s power through communication – no matter whether he is a television personality or part of the undifferentiated mass – is always exerted on two levels. From a semiotic point of view, each media message has both a primary meaning and a secondary meaning – i.e. both a denotation as well as a connotation. If someone declares in the mass media that the situation with topic X is such and such, in addition to trying to convince us that the situation with topic X is such and such, they are also trying to convince us that it is acceptable to talk about this topic in this manner in the mass media. But the connotation does not end here; the most important secondary meaning involves morals. The statement that the situation with topic X is such and such not only claims to be universally valid, but thanks to the import that the mass media frame automatically gives it, it also stakes a claim to being morally anchored in the society addressed by the media. Whenever a television entertainer makes a few jokes at the expense of a minority, not only does he manage to entertain his audience, but he also significantly contributes to legitimizing this way of talking about minorities in general – the viewer is less hesitant to retell the joke to the people he knows. Another example: the fact that Martin Heidegger was a Nazi sympathizer or Günter Grass a member of the Waffen-SS throws a bad light not only on them as individuals, but on all intellectuals and moral authorities.
In today’s situation, problems arise when – even though members of the undifferentiated mob (so-called “regular” people) have the power to call attention to themselves – when the mob is not as anonymous as it used to be – people continue to delegate responsibility onto others, onto those “officially” in power. In base-to-base communication, however, everybody is a potential model of style, behavior, or opinions. Naturally, the base is structured as well, polycentric, multi-hierarchical; there are those who lead (opinion leaders) and those who let themselves be led. Not that awareness of or appeals for personal responsibility are anything new, but in a situation where each person’s communications reach is as large as it is today and where the demand for models of behavior, moral indicators, arbiters of taste, and clear life scenarios in modern society significantly exceeds demand, people are on the lookout for models within their social circles and their personal responsibility for the influence they exert on their direct and indirect surroundings plays an ever greater role.
The manner in which responsibility has yet to catch up with the power newly conferred upon the individual can be illustrated using the examples of internet communication and advertising tactics.
Internet discussions: „The problem is with technology!“
Experienced internet discussion participants will be intimately familiar with a common example of the ethos of this form of communication – the fact that its participants have given up on having a meaningful debate, explained by the impossibility of even holding such a debate online. The history of the vocabulary of verbal confrontation (flamewar, troll, ...) dates back to the time of the first BBS17 – although its purpose is to avoid difficulties in communication, it also perfectly embodies the frustration arising from the insurmountable limitations of online discussion. The many different jokes, “rules” and myths reflecting this frustration have – regardless of their truthfulness – become a solid part of internet folklore.18
Technology itself is at least partially at fault, having reduced communication to text and simple graphics – no gestures, no facial expressions, no physical proximity or tone of voice... all of which leads to regression and the need to overcome one’s expressive impotence through bursts of emotion. Which is why, from an evolutionary point of view, systems based on the discussion of topics19 (BBS) are losing out to those based on individuals (Facebook)20. Although thanks to its broad-based popularity Facebook is significantly changing one of the central characteristics of the older systems – it removes anonymity – it, too, is influenced by elements of the old communications ethos. One influential remnant of early cyberculture is the engrained but misleading division of the “virtual world” from the “real world.” Internet communication that is seen as being ontologically “lower” leads to a lower sense of responsibility as well. This means that, although we are talking about one and the same world – the result, again, of the overlap of the sociosphere and the mediasphere in base-to-base communication – we are seeing a decline and not an increase in the sense of personal responsibility.
Advertising: „Doesn’t affect me!“
The Western print media (and mass media in general) today is experiencing existential problems – and definitely not just because of the international financial crisis. The reason why investments into traditional advertising – i.e. the main source of profit in media – are declining, is to a great extent related to the shift in communications flows. The competition felt by the mass media comes not only from other mass media outlets, but primarily from other information channels and forms of entertainment into which the individual today can invest his free time. Last but not least, what we are seeing is the advanced discrediting of advertising as a form of communication. Few people today view advertising neutrally, as merely another source of information. Advertising today is unconditionally understood as manipulation. At worst, the appearance of advertising amidst a stream of entertainment images – in the middle of a film on television, between songs on the radio, or before a movie screening at the cinema – is viewed as a shameless abuse of the viewer’s attention;21 at best, it is seen as a necessary evil. And even if someone views advertising as legitimate manipulation, actually admitting that you are influenced by advertising would be a major faux pas. Allowing oneself to be influenced by advertising is seen as a lack of individual autonomy, as naivety, as the inability to remain detached. Distancing oneself from the influence of advertising is de facto just one more expression of persistent victimization. Attacks on advertising in the form of culture jamming – which first appeared to a significant degree in the 1980s and whose aim is to creatively call attention to the manipulative nature of advertising and the corrupt nature of advertisers – came at a time when the urban individual was already putting advertising messages in quotation marks as a matter of course. It is not true, however, that traditional advertising is entirely without effect – repetition and synergy (i.e. the use of several distribution channels in order to give the impression that something is being talked about “everywhere”) are still commonly engaged in. In fact, even sharing your distaste for a specific advertisement often serves to confirm and strengthen its impact. Advertising today achieves its best impact when the fact that something is advertising has been effectively repressed. This is not anything new, of course; what is new, however, are the tactics for achieving this impact before being revealed and discredited. An example: at first glance, “firstname.lastname@example.org” provides information on the email address of this essay’s author. Less self-evident, however, is the fact that it is also a clever advertisement for a service provided by Google. Any reevaluation of one’s personal stance regarding its further propagation takes a back seat, if we realize it at all. But let us return to the previously discussed transformation of communications flows, to base-to-base communication. Not too long ago, intensive efforts at producing the most effective advertisements led to the use of so-called opinion leaders, on the assumption that recipients pay more attention to people they know (friends, acquaintances, co-workers...) than to impersonal advertising propagated by the mass media. With the increase in base-to-base communication, word-of-mouth acquires an exponentially more immense meaning. In this regard, the internet and social media in particular are nothing more than powerful tools for creating and linking these word-of-mouth channels. Nothing in the history of media and technology has brought together and united people, interest, and information as effectively as the „share“ button.
As we have already stated, thanks to repetition and synergy, traditional advertising continues to have a certain impact. But what are we witnessing when we all are becoming communications channels; when everybody is a medium (of advertising)?
Embracing the world with open arms
We have already shown that the unprecedented volume of interpersonal communication is helping to shape our view of the world, our opinions and attitudes. With the individual’s extended communications reach, our surroundings have been transformed into “super-surroundings” with an unprecedented influence on the construction of complex images of reality in our minds. What remains to describe is the transformation of our individual sensitivity to outside influences. The retreat of transcendental ideologies, unassailable principles, public authorities, and shared moral imperatives means the disappearance of prescribed scenarios of behavior, model biographies, and an established communications ethos; on the other hand, it evokes the need for legitimacy on both the group and individual level. According to Christopher Lasch, our yearning for legitimacy can be explained by our fear of exclusion; man does not need to stand out – what is important is to not lag behind, not to look like a fool. The goal is not to be above-average, but to not be below average. In such a situation, individual behavior is influenced first of all by the outside world at the expense of principles engrained by our upbringing. One of the first to point out this historical change in personality was American sociologist David Riesman in the 1950s, when he identified inner-directed personalities, who tend to be found in traditional societies where the individual is guided by principles adopted during his upbringing, and outer-directed personalities, who first appear with the advent of modernity and who are lacking these principles and so have to turn to the outside world for models of behavior.22
This means that it is not only the world that “comes” to the individual from all sides, but that the individual himself embraces the world with open arms, hungry for fixed points of reference. Any statements on the transformation of cultural paradigms hide the fact that the relationship between the Self and the world is undergoing daily changes, even in seemingly the most banal situations. Every communication a priori involves a transaction of power; as Don DeLillo says, “every commentary is authoritative.” Practically every communication involves the transformation of the relationship between the Self and the world. This transformation works both ways – every communication transforms both the Self and the world.
It is regrettable that the individual’s intensified influence on the world is occurring at that moment in history when people are the least convinced about this power. Lasch describes how since the 1960s there has been a decline in faith in change, how the atmosphere of permanent endangerment and people’s response in the form of ubiquitous survivalism has led to universal apathy and a lack of interest in social issues, i.e. a lack of faith that anything can be done about them. Anthony Giddens describes the globalized world as a juggernaut – a giant, uncontrollable machine of incalculable momentum. Judith Williamson talks of a “culture of denial” in which the lack of interest in the world and the future results in stupor and the inability to act. We need not add that the image of the individual rendered helpless in the face of the system and the globalized world is also promoted by the movie industry, and that this mood is also found in post-9/11 fiction.
According to Lasch, modern industry, built on the pillars of Fordism and Sloanism,23 led to a dependency on experts, devalued independent thinking, and taught the individual not to trust his own judgment. Although faith in the authority of the expert has been steadily declining since the 1950s, the need for outside guidance is not disappearing. The road to the future had once been straightforward, but it started to twist and turn just as it ceased to be lined by guardrails, and so the individual is constantly asking for directions.
In today’s situation of immense supply and demand for directions, there is no point in basing criticism on an impersonal, outside ideal. Everyone is a critic today, and every statement is public; but personal responsibility is lagging dramatically behind. What makes post-critical society different is the redistribution of power and criticism from the centers to the margins. There is no way, however, that today’s universal criticism can replace traditional criticism. New and unnamed dangers arise from a lack of reflection upon this situation, this unconscious delegating of responsibility onto abandoned centers of power and hiding behind subjectivity. The agent of change is too often identified as lying far outside the personal sphere, but, today, we all are such agents, we all represent risk, and we all offer a potential solution.
1 By sociosphere, we here mean the sum of all human relationships.
2 We will leave it to others to debate the question as to whether another, similarly significant transformation is taking place today.
3 Ignoring for a moment that, regardless of the form, even mediated experiences are always felt directly.
4 The tendency to prefer the exchange value of things instead of their use value.
5 Reification means approaching values and subjects as things. It is one form of alienation. Example: the field of statistics works with people as things, so it has no problem talking about a tenth of a person even though people are indivisible; it thus strips people of their humanity.
6 The radicalization of this logic lays the foundations for discourse in which we cannot be surprised at the popularity of metaphors such as “the soundtrack to an imaginary film” in contemporary musical journalism.
7 Don DeLillo offers a humorous depiction of an imagination saturated with media images in his novel White Noise.
8 A good example of non-critical framing in journalistic practice involves associating the topics of privacy, the bureaucracy of surveillance, and lack of transparency with the ambivalent concept of a Big Brother, which absurdly reinforces the hypertrophied atmosphere of the police state, regardless of reality.
9 One good example is the popular remark that “such things only happen in the movies” or the journalistic comparison of real events to horror movies. No less interesting is the fact that these sorts of remarks have made it into actual films (e.g. State of Play, 2009)!
10 Abercrombie, Nicholas - Longhurst, Brian. Audiences: A Sociological Theory of Performance and Imagination. Sage Publications 1998.
11 For instance, Joshua Meyerowitz claims that the primary participants in the 1968 international student protests were members of the first generation to have been born into a world with television, which presented a world where authorities and adults in general had been stripped of their previous sanctity.
12 Here I am referring to what was generally considered to be the definition of these categories.
13 In other words, audiences were never entirely passive, although it even took social theory some time before it began to accept this point of view.
17 Topic based Bulletin Board Systems (the predecessors of today’s discussion forums), to which users could contribute.
18 Such as the popular image of a disabled child on a track-and-field lane with the caption “Arguing on the internet is like running in the Special Olympics. Even if you win you’re still retarded.”
19 Unless they are highly specialized or visited by people with relatively equal social status.
20 It can be argued that the design of services such as Facebook does not facilitate much discussion, but perhaps we should ask whether this ideal – enabling democratic discussion on open platforms – was not naďve from the beginning. Perhaps people are not interested in discussing in the way or at the volume envisioned by the prophets of the digital age. The communications being developed by these services are more fact-based, i.e. the kind of communication whose purpose it is to create a virtual community, symbolically reproducing “human warmth.”
21 We should add that indignation at the insinuation of advertising into the mass media – often used to illustrate the alleged decline of serious media or media in general – represents nothing more than a lack (or idealization) of historical memory. In the early days of print and television, these media’s primary function was to act as vehicles for advertising, and they did so in ways that we today would label vulgar or shameless. It was hardly unusual for early newspapers to have 13 pages of advertising out of a total 16 pages. And with the first television series and shows, any attempts at limiting sponsoring or what passed for product placement at the time were minimal to non-existent.
22 The relationship to Lasch’s narcissist is clearly evident.
23 Sloanism is a marketing approach whose aim is the stylized differentiation of one product with the goal of creating the impression of a broad range of choices in order to target various different customers.