Great article on real life magazine
Great article on real life magazine
Following on from my last blog post, something that I’ve been thinking more about is the Public Sphere and what constitutes it. Is it a semi-mythical space or can it actually exist?
Firstly, what is the public sphere. The German writers Hannah Arendt and Habermas both placed the public sphere at the centre of their conception of politics. It is difficult to understand how Arendt understood the public sphere without first understanding how she conceived of the private sphere. The private sphere is that which is concerned with housekeeping and privacy. In other words the concern of the private sphere is in the management of one’s own household, and also in having a space where one is protected from the public sphere. It is, if you will, a negative space, a space of darkness.
“A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow. While it retains its visibility, it loses the quality of rising into sight from some darker ground which must remain hidden if it is not to lose its depth in a very real, non-subjective sense. The only efficient way to guarantee the darkness of what needs to be hidden against the light of publicity is private property, a privately owned place to hide in.”
For Hannah Arendt, there is a dichotomy between the public sphere and the private sphere. In some ways it is similar to the dichotomy between light and darkness, the positive and the negative. The private sphere is the space where the ‘life processes’ take place. Eating, shitting, fucking, dying, all take place behind private walls. The management of the private sphere is then the management of the life processes. To put that another way, the management of the private, housekeeping in other words, is all to do with the survival of the species. However, it is within this private sphere that one has protection, has the space to develop as a subject outside the glare of the magnetism of the same which always threatens the burgeoning subjectivity.
The private realm then is always about self preservation. It is never about world building. World building should be the domain of politics. It is the creation of a common world that holds an objectivity that the private realm does not have. The private realm can only be taken care of once the bare necessities of life have been dealt with.
“Private wealth, therefore, became a condition for admission to public life not because its owner was engaged in accumulating it but, on the contrary, because it assured with reasonable certainty that its owner would not have to engage in providing for himself the means of use and consumption and was free for public activity.”
The public sphere then is noted for being exclusionary, one cannot enter without having risen above the base economic means that concerns humans. Therefore, whether it is ancient Greece or the salons of the 17th and 18th century, the public sphere is based on firstly having overcome the worry of the reproduction of one’s self, to in the communion with others, having to concern oneself with the building of a world. And the building of a common world comes from all having different locations/perspectives within that world and therefore due to these manifold positions and “innumerable perspectives.. no common measurement or denominator can ever be devised.”
The public sphere fundamentally is marked by a different conception of time. Where the private sphere is always marked inwardly by staving away from death and therefore is more concerned with life in its short term, the public sphere is concerned with a ‘history’, of immortalising, of the creation of a common world, the world of manmade appearance. It is the space where humans constitute their reality and create it together. The public sphere then should be concerned with the immortal, with past, present and the future. While the private is concerned with the present.
In Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas identifies the rise of the bourgeois public sphere with the initial need for merchants, proto-capitalists to share vital and accurate information about foreign markets, political strife and its effects on business, etc. Thus the “public sphere” for the bourgeoisie was a necessary focal point to ensure the survival of their class. In other words, to know that a monarchy or political authority in say Singapore is assassinating merchants is good information to have if one is doing trade in that region. The emerging bourgeois public sphere is a class based public sphere, one that is antagonistic to both the aristocratic authority that limits capitalistic expansion, women and the working class.
“The traffic in news that developed alongside the traffic in commodities showed a similar pattern. With the expansion of trade, merchants’ market-oriented calculations required more frequent and more exact information about distant events.”
The traffic information that accompanied the increasing traffic in goods is worth further investigation, as as capitalism became more complex, so too did the information. Where once letters were the primary mode of merchants to circulate information, letters became more and more complex becoming pamphlets, newsletters and eventually journals. As they became more complex they became absorbed into a state administration that could communicate through these proto-newspapers and, in doing so, a new culture was formulating, one primarily based on the written word. The novel then becomes the cultural expression of the bourgeois society, a culture radically different from the ‘classical’ tradition that the aristocratic authorities espoused.
The salons, coffee houses, newspapers could then be viewed as the space of mediation between the public realm and the private realm. As one analyst of Habermas’ public sphere stated:
The principles of the public sphere involved an open discussion of all issues of general concern in which discursive argumentation was employed to ascertain general interests and the public good. The public sphere thus presupposed freedoms of speech and assembly, a free press, and the right to freely participate in political debate and decision-making.
However, as both Arendt and Habermas note, the ‘literate’ and ‘rationalist’ element that was a necessary benchmark on understanding the discourse of bourgeois enlightenment was replaced by a more systematic approach to state administration, one that moved toward mass entertainment and the creation of the ‘masses’, a body politic that was granted equality under the law, rather than a bourgeois class that reigned its influence through debating its limited ideas in the public sphere.
Such is a bit of a ramble through a summary of some of the demarcations of what other writers have recognised the public sphere is. In its idealised form it seems the public sphere has never existed, however, and what I want to look at in the next blog post is, has the public sphere returned in the guise of social media/ the internet etc. Evidently, for Habermas, the exchange of information was not only vital to the existence of a public sphere, it was intrinsic to the development of capitalism as a secure economic system. As disinformation i.e. Fake News is the hot topic of the moment, are we looking at the return of the public sphere in a mutated form after its disappearance a century ago?
This is beautiful and I feel distraught over a man I’ve never met.
Mark on a seaside trip, c. mid-2000s
There is a line in Byung-Chul Han’s book The Burnout Society that makes me think of you: ‘the violence of positivity does not deprive, it saturates; it does not exclude, it exhausts.’ You were the person who diagnosed this condition better than anyone else, always. You lived the violence of positivity even as you did your best to harness it. You refracted everything, engaged everything and everyone. You dissolved cynicism in energy. You could go to sleep on the floor, like a lemur, and wake up and continue the conversation as if sleep was but a momentary blip between real desire, the desire for perpetual engagement, for never-ending conversation.
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Since starting this blog, my interests have circumnavigated around issues of transparency. I’ve been continuously interested in politics that have emerged through online spaces and the effect that these online spaces are having on the doing of politics. Of course this decade especially we are seeing political parties emerging that are taking the online space as something like their constituency like the various Pirate Parties. Out of this interest I even interviewed one of the founding members of the Icelandic Pirate Party Smari McCarthy on his work with WikiLeaks, but specifically on the Icelandic Modern Media Institute and its battle to create Iceland as a kind of transparency haven.
What drew me to the politics of transparency and Pirate Politics in general was a belief that democracy could not exist without the information necessary for people to make informed decisions. For this information was an absolute necessity, that the data that resulted in political decisions being made, should be freely available so we could freely understand who benefited most as a result of such decisions. I was also drawn toward their interest in increasing the civil sphere through the use of digital technology that would allow more participation from the public.
The Transparency Society by Byung-Chul Han is an eviscerating read, one that dismantles the ideology of transparency for its anti-political posturing. It is a short compelling read on digital society and especially its positivistic turn. What I mean (and more importantly what Byung-Chul Han means) by positivistic turn is the turn that the internet has taken in the last decade toward what I would call ‘profiling’. That the corporatisation of the internet (Facebook, Google, Twitter) who have serially monopolised how we use online space, do not allow access to much of its services unless one has a profile. That profile seeks information on you before allowing you to exist. The days of usernames and ulterior selves are gone. Everything is out in the open. This is the positivistic.
For Han, transparency is a way of looking at politics and the political sphere through a neoliberal lens and that rather than challenging the neoliberal consensus they enforce it.
Let’s go back to one of the main principles of the transparency movement, that freedom of information leads to the proper functioning of democracy. As Smari McCarthy stated previously.
Because our understanding is in order to have democracy you need to have two things: you need first to have the information that is required of you to be able to make good enlightened decisions and secondly you need to have the authority to make decisions. If either of these things are missing you are not living in a democracy.
Pirate Politics’ modus operandi is to open the valves of information so that all can be accessed and this results in an informed public that can therefore put pressure on their public representatives to act better. Their campaign is one where freedom of information can reign and their version of utopia seems to be one where there is no longer any distinction between the citizen and the journalist, and that democracy has now been rectified by the x-ray they are putting up to the state.
But as Byung-Chul Han wryfully observes, if the Pirate Party are the political authority what type of decisions are they going to make once the information is exposed.
The Pirate Party represents a colourless party of opinion. Here politics yields to administrating social needs while leaving the framework of socio-economic relations unchanged and clinging to them. As an anti-party, the Pirate Party proves unable to articulate political will or to produce new social co-ordinates.
Rather than fundamentally challenging the capitalist state, transparency actually paradoxically reinforces it. If information is the detritus of capitalism, the manifold recordings of its various wheelings and, dealings, that fills logbooks and filing cabinets, press releases and government policy papers, are we just studying the waste product of a system that can never be fundamentally altered if this information is put on the pedestal?
Transparency takes as tantamount the testimony of information despite it being as what I’d understand as a waste product of state-capitalism. Information is, according to Han,
a phenomenon as such insofar as it lacks all negativity. It amounts to positivised, operationalized language.
Operationalized language reminds me in one way of Newspeak, or what the Nazi’s called Sprachregelung, where the complexity and nuance of language has evaporated that it becomes standardised to a political system rather than the complexity of the world (and beyond).
For George Orwell, the purpose of Newspeak was
not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods.
Putting the provision of the provision of this information as the guiding light of a new form of politics means we are choosing detritus over actual communication, we are choosing language emptied of nuance. Information is objective yes but words aren’t. Information has no value in and of itself. It constantly refers to the system to which it describes.
Therefore paradoxically, once the system is ready to allow transparency, the only language we will have to describe the system is the information itself gives us.
Nuance is negativity. Language is nuance. To empty the world of nuance, negativity and darkness does not entail a world of truth according to Hans. What is actually does is aid the creation of an economic digital panopticon, one in which we all participate in. It results not only in the erosion of a private sphere (i.e. we are always online, on the grid, in the matrix) but also the public sphere is eroded as well. Because our experiences online are increasingly curated, presenting to us what we already “like”, negativity and the encounter with the other, crucial to a vibrant public sphere are being eroded.
This digital vicinity offers users only sectors of the world that pleases them. In this fashion, it dismantles the public sphere — indeed, it dismantles public, critical consciousness – and it privatises the world. The internet transforms into an intimate sphere or comfort zone. Proximity, from which all distance has been eliminated, is another form in which transparency finds expression.
The public sphere, for Hannah Arendt is crucial for political freedom. In fact for Arendt, politics cannot exist without it. Despite it being an artificially created space (i.e. it is manmade) and comes into being as a kind of theatre or arena, one in which the eyes of the public watch as those with different perspectives do battle. Therefore difference/otherness/negativity is crucial to the public sphere as it is in this difference that politics becomes fashioned, civility and ultimately civilisation. It is ultimately in this space where differences collide that politics can occur in and opinions occur. Where opinions occur in private, as in the domestic setting nothing can truly test their validity.
Under the conditions of a common world, reality is not guaranteed primarily by the “common nature” of all men who constitute it, but rather by the fact that, differences of position and the resulting variety of perspectives notwithstanding, everybody is always concerned with the same object. If the sameness of the object can no longer be discerned, no common nature of men, least of all the unnatural conformism of a mass society, can prevent the destruction of the common world, which is usually preceded by the destruction of the many aspects in which it presents itself to human plurality. This can happen under conditions of radical isolation, where nobody any longer agrees with anybody else… But it may also happen under conditions of mass society, or mass hysteria, where we see all people suddenly behave as though they were members of one family, each multiplying and prolonging the perspective of his neighbour. In both cases, men have become entirely private … They are all imprisoned in the subjectivity of their own singular experience, which does not cease to be singular if the same experience is multiplied innumerable times.
And just to finish with this remarkably astute paragraph from The Human Condition
The end of the common world has come when it is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself in one perspective.
Although Han does not reference Hannah Arendt, it is clear that his criticism of transparency comes from a similar fear in that it is a dogmatic language. For politics to rely on this dogmatic language is to bid farewell to the common world and to the public sphere and to be imprisoned by the subjectivity of one’s own mind and its possibility of redemption in the other.
“The time is out of joint.”
I always thought of time as akin to a train chugging along on a railway line. The train only went in one direction, never stopping, never looking back, as it puffed along around the circumference of the earth. As it chugged along, an observer sitting on the cattle catcher would observe the fields, forests, cities, rivers and marshes, as they changed from season to season, never looking back. The train would always arrive back at its departing stop but would never falter and keep chugging along and that little creature, sitting on the cattle catcher, would see all the same things again with the knowledge of what he was going to see and when.
There would be many trains of course, and many different lines but before I never thought that they could collide.
But they did of course.
Tradition is the expectation that every journey on that train will inevitably throw up the same visions, the same challenges. Tradition’s authority stems from this knowledge, that there were those that have travelled this journey before and have the information, to pass down to the next traveller on the journey of time.
In Dead Centre’s Hamnet, a young boy of eleven stands on a stage in front of a large screen. Alone. He has lost his father and he is stuck at the age of eleven. He can’t grow any older and his father, the authority figure that has travelled along these train tracks before is absent. In the absence of the father, Hamnet peers at the audience and looks for another to re-enact his father’s presence. Using of course, the text that his ‘father’ wrote on ghosts, lost fathers, and time unravelling. Hamlet.
Hamlet is a play about a ghost, about a father who in his absence, dictates Hamlet’s present.
Hamnet is also a play about a ghost, about absence. But here it’s Hamnet who is the ghost, a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s only son, who died at the age of eleven. And it is this familial loss, the inverse of the natural order that Dead Centre are concerned with. The trace of absence that not only shapes our words, but our emotions.
When we walk into the Peacock and take our seats, we are faced with a screen that reflects the audience back unto themselves. The screen is not a mirror though it initially acts like one. As we wait, we reflect on ourselves, our digitised selves living beyond the breach in a landscape that can be forever be replayed, long after our absence. We are contemplating our very selves as ghosts.
A small camera lay hidden behind the canvas on the stage, pointing at the audience, at the front of the stage. The camera separates the living from the dead, but it opens up communication between them. In one’s presence in front of the camera, in one moment of time, one’s absence can be assuaged in another moment.
In Ghost Dance, Derrida states of the moving image that it is the terrain of ghosts.
“Cinema is the art of ghosts, a battle of phantoms… It’s the art of allowing ghosts to come back… I believe that ghosts are part of the future and that the modern technology of images like cinematography and telecommunication enhances the power of ghosts and their ability to haunt us.”
The radiance of Enlightenment’s rationalism brought to light the different mechanisms of the world’s working, banishing the ghosts to stories, irrationalism and history. Yet technology keeps progressing and, the mechanisms of the world, that we once thought we understood have been blitzkrieged. So much of our interaction with the world now takes places through an LCD screen where we replicate our selves, skew temporality and engage in communication with images that are no longer living nor dead.
As the world becomes a conglometure of digital representation and real life, the barriers between the two dissolve, the static nature of online time, its temporal askew-ness seeps into our conception of time in real life and we become haunted, our minds become the hosts to the images of others, their selfies, thoughts, desires. Our present becomes mediated by the screen, where ghosts have their communion and we can join them.
Tradition has lost its authority here. No one knows the way any longer. We are all lost souls of the underworld.
In the absence of his father, Hamnet invites an audience member on stage, to play the Ghost of Hamlet Snr. Hamnet hands over the text, throws a white sheet over the audience member and for a moment he can playact the return of the authoritative figure. There is a fleeting hope here, that in the text, Hamnet can find some guidance, some escape from his existence in no-time, that his absent father can be conjured through his script, that he can somehow navigate this world. The audience laughs at the comical ghost hidden under a white sheet.
Cleverly, Dead Centre completely flip the script on the above idea.
Rather than there being an absent father, and the suffering child who has to make his own way in the world, we are confronted with a very potent image. The vitality of a ghost. Its living and breathing existence. That the child we are observing on stage is actually the absent one, it is his absence that is haunting his father, the writer Shakespeare.
“To be, or not to be, that is the question.”
Whether we “be” or “not be” we still are an active agent. Although non-beings may seem to be bereft of a body, they act too as an agent on the human mind. To not be is to become a ghost, to haunt life as a shade, as a spectre, as a memory. An internalised voice in another’s conscious. Their non-being the objective, outside other that invests meaning in the chaoticism of subjectivity.
Few shows use technology I have seen have used technology as seamlessly as ‘Hamnet’. It is a mediation on absence and presence. The manipulative power of the screen is harvested to astounding effect in the dialogue between the ‘Hamnet’ as ghost in his physical presence on stage, and ‘Shakespeare’ alive on the screen. A representation of all our dialogues with our ghosts.
But the screen poses another question. Since it has become all our closest companion, since it is it that to which transcribe our desires, our queries, our images. Since it stores it becomes something like a collective depository of us. Do our diverse subjectivities become the bedrock of a future objectivity, hinted at in the voice of Google’s Siri that has supplanted the authority of the father for Hamnet?
Who told Hamnet that when he hit the ball against the screen infinity times that it would shatter? When that occurs the screen that separates being and non being crumbles. I’m trying to think about what happens then.
This month in Ireland is ‘Green Ribbon Campaign’, one of them cosmetic marketing campaigns that state departments channel millions of euro into in order to create a nationwide perception that your government is being proactive. The ‘Green Ribbon Campaign’ is rolling out over May 2017 and has over 90 Partner Organisations, as much of these campaigns do. ‘See Change: The National Stigma Reduction Partnership’ is the main organiser of the event, and its chief goal, as the name testifies to with its nice double entendre, inviting us both to ‘see change’ and on its idiomatic flipside of ‘sea change’, to bring forth a broad transformation.
A broad transformation in what?
Of mental health of course. Telling us to be aware of it. Giving us advice like, “Don’t just talk about mental health: Just be yourself, chat about everyday things as well.” This may be excellent advice but it’s very difficult to articulate any criticism of such programmes without coming across as facetious, or worse, even callous.
To be honest, despite starting this article with the intention of looking at the ‘Green Ribbon Campaign’ and its worthy goal of breaking down stigmas, it’s hard not to get the feeling that its campaign has the wrong target audience.
Really it’s not the Irish public that has been stigmatising people with mental health problems, it has, since its conception, been the Irish state through the societal discourse it has promoted. A brief flick through countless works of Irish literature highlights the constant trauma, of what Francie Brady in The Butcher Boy calls ‘the garage’. The ‘garage’, the austere, grey walled psychiatric units that overlooked provincial towns, suburbs and city outskirts all around Ireland lurks in the shadows of Irish literature because it lives through the Irish psyche.
The place where you went “to get fixed.”
In Mary Raftery’s documentary, ‘Behind The Walls’, she opens up the film with a statement that shocks one to the quick, because of the very endemicity of the problem: Ireland during the middle decades of the 20th century had more people than any other country in the world, per capita, in mental hospitals putting even the Soviet Union to shame.
Just what could be wrong with all of them?
What Ireland was struggling with then, as it is increasingly again suffering with now, is what it is permissible to be. Ireland in the middle of the last century was a grim place. Briefly, like so many other nations coming out of colonialism there were number of problems to be dealt with. The problem of authority was huge, or to frame that in another way, now that the foreigner who has enslaved me has gone, who now is my master.
Culture was another massive problem, or its lack. Censorship was rampant with any new ideas, literature or art that sought some way of navigating the cultural sterility and rampant authoritarianism of this new Ireland not even making it to a domestic printing press.
With the Irish language also gone and with it dying a relationship to the landscape, to a tradition that preceded the Saxons, this fed into the problem of authority. No erstwhile tradition existed that people in Ireland could identify with, other than what was left in the wake of its demise, the Roman Catholic Church and an Irish nationalism, the Ying to British Nationalism’s Yang.
How did the burgeoning Irish state deal with this problem of authority, of a lack of conviction of even in its own authority to govern? By shifting so much of the authorial decision making to the Catholic Church of course, to justify the existence of a new state. And the only manner in which the Catholic Church could justify its own sinister rule was to ensure that there were all manner of devout Catholics trotting through the streets, schools, aisles, football pitches, civic offices, hospital boards, doctor offices, councils, and so on and that each of these replicated their devoutness for public consumption.
Imagine the immense social pressure that existed in this Ireland, to behave according to a certain ideal of what one ought to be, to repress one’s desire to think, to act, to be, and the mental strain that this had. Still has.
What exactly was wrong then with all these individuals incarcerated in Ireland’s gulags across the land? This is not even to mention those incarcerated in Magdalene Laundries and the other Mother and Baby Homes in existence. When a state deems it necessary to incarcerate such a vast swathe of its people in various institutions, we are not dealing with a mental health problem, we aren’t even dealing with a social problem. We are dealing with a political problem.
Before going any further, it might be worthwhile questioning how do we conceive of politics?
Politics, in Hannah Arendt’s conception of it, is preceded by the need for a public space to exist, a space in which people with an interest in public life come together to make a decision on the collective community. Now in a republic such as what we occupy, where every citizen is supposedly giving a right to participate in politics due to their having the vote, politics for Arendt is absent. Without civic engagement i.e. without a community’s active participation in the creation of the collective realm, without debate, interest, and the collective deliberation that goes along with it, we are being devoid of a political realm.
What we are instead given is the political spectacle. Just cast one’s eye across the pond for a moment and look at May’s refusal to debate Corbyn on national television. Look at Enda Kenny’s refusal to go on live television debates last year for the 2016 General Election. What is being left in the wake of the gradual diminishment of the spaces of civic participation is simply authoritarianism. It follows only the bureaucratic blueprint of how society ought to operate by the map bequeathed to it by the ruling classes and is realised through the bureaucratic apparatuses that wield the will of the state.
How exactly is this a political problem?
We all desire to be part of the world, to make decisions on the space around us, to come together to make decisions on how we want to shape it. By being denied this ability to engage with the world around us, we are denied not just the world but access to our own happiness. When the realisation of the reality that we are exiles to this world, that our own desires have no worth, hope is eradicated. If the only way we can “live” is through sacrificing our desire to live in the world, repressing it so we can participate in the spectacle of life.
Censorship provided the means of this spectacles immersion in Irish soil. It was akin to throwing salt on the cultural development of the new state, forbidding any new ideas being formulated and practiced upon, to shape a political climate that had little authority and furthermore labelling those that engaged in/consumed/ or practiced the art of thinking as transgressor.
The weird thing about comic books in Francie Brady is that they gave our boy not only another way of looking at himself in the world, but made that world possible. His transgressive impulses, the boundaries of which were set by the community’s stigma, could be articulated outside of the community’s discourse of saints and sinners, creating an imaginary space where Francie Brady could survive the armageddon of a community’s judgement on his self worth.
What I’m saying in a pretty perverse sense, is that culture is necessary for the soul’s survival. Self worth in an age where the self is expected to be and have everything, can be given new routes to navigate such bullshit if it is exposed to some sense of the past.
In ‘A Girl is a Half Formed Thing’, what is evident is the lack of culture. Girl is given no cultural choice that existed for a young person to negotiate a sense of self. When there is only one identity for the taking i.e. devout Roman Catholicism, the rebel/ outsider takes the extreme negativity aspects of what is expected them, and articulates their self in this way. Such is what happens to ‘Girl’.
“On my knees I learn plenty – there’s a lot I’ll do and they are all shame when they think their flesh desired. Offer up to me and disconcerted by my lack of saying no. Saying yes is the best of powers. It’s no big thing the things they do.”
Does social stigma arrive out of the ether, that people breathe it like oxygen and all of a sudden have this hypocritical attitude or that hypocritical attitude? All the evidence of the history of this state points to stigma being a social construct, that may yes have had some roots in social values but was actively inflamed through the apparatus’ of the state.
An access to culture, as Guy Debord argues in The Society of the Spectacle is to have access to a history, to become aware of one’s coming to understand oneself in relation to a history that has its basis in a political economy.
“Once there was history, but ‘there is no longer any history’ – because the class owners of the economy, who cannot break with economic history, must repress any other use of irreversible time as representing an immediate threat to itself. The ruling class, made up of specialists in the ownership of things who for that very reason are themselves owned by things, is obliged to tie its fate to the maintenance of a reified history and to the permanent preservation of a new historical immobility.”
What is Debord on about here and what has this got to do with The Green Ribbon campaign I observed on a billboard at a train station one week ago?
To have access to a culture is to have access to the materiality of time. When one thinks about Conservatism, what is most manifest is the preservation of a culture, of the passing down of property, titles, heirlooms, a genealogy and power. Conservatism, which in essence is a constant looking back, validates its culture because it has a lineage that is celebrated, not just by those that directly benefit from it in a material form, but because others rejoice in its history.
Conservatism, like the Catholic Church, have a monopoly over how people access history, how they come to understand themselves as subject. By holding onto that knowledge, usually through institutions like universities etc. the present can not emerge and the weight of the repressed present is worn like a ballast around the neck of the exiled individuals.
Countless works of Irish literature deal with depression and mental illness because it was and is the de facto state of a major proportion of its population. When such campaigns like the Green Ribbon Campaign are run, with an emphasis on individuals wearing a green ribbon and talking to one another, the State is once again pulling off a massive wink and nod, stating that indeed, finally, mental health is a massive issue in this state while not first looking at itself, at the institutional environment that allows it to flourish.
The most glaring example of the of ‘The National Stigma Reduction Partnership’ was last week when it was revealed that a young woman committed suicide, days after her arrest by An Garda Siochana. What could have pointed to a definite ‘sea change’ in tackling the stigmatisation of mental illness in Ireland, of a criticism of the utter lack of awareness of the Gardai in dealing with mental illness, of the lack of care that this individual received and finally that a member of the Garda Siochana shared a video of her online at the height of her mental distress shows the utter ineptitude of a state campaign to tackle stigma.
Because stigma is necessary for state authority. And stigma is only toppled by those that are not afraid to make their voices heard. Though again there is naught but silence, even from a partnership of over 90 partner organisations telling us to wear a green ribbon and talk.
"The coils of a serpent are even more complex than the burrows of a molehill." Deleuze
Something I’ve been thinking more about is the encroachment of digital media into all aspects of our daily lives. I’ve been thinking of our relationship to these digital media, whether it is of a symbiotic nature, or a parasitic one. If it is of a symbiotic nature, more the good for us. Our lives are irrevocably improved by being instantly connected to the neurons of mankind and a good deal of its R.A.M as well. Our ability to access a specific home cooked curry from an Indian Grandmother means never before has the potential outputs from our kitchen been so aromatic while planning a party or an event or even a protest has never so easy.
Push that boat out a bit and the internet has proliferated the mediation of everyday life to the point at which institutions have not been so undermined in their ability to declare what is what since the 1960’s. The Arab Spring, often called the “Twitter Revolution”, was spearheaded by the activists’s ability to communicate effectively through the internet and to broadcast their battle to the world. (A good account of the internet’s impact in the Tunisian Revolution in 2011 can be read here.)
Then of course you have the fact that the internet makes institutions more prone to leaks, from Snowden’s revelations that the National Security Agency is effectively stockpiling the internet and spying on just about every citizen that passes through American servers to Manning’s revelations through WikiLeaks that the Empire is behaving with sadistic impunity overseas. As Assange states in his introduction to “The WikiLeaks Files”:
The study of empires has long been the study of their communications. Carved into stone or inked into parchment, empires from Babylon to the Ming dynasty left records of the organisational center communicating with its peripheries.
Besides providing a keen summary of the war crimes and human rights abuses documented in WikiLeaks publications, along with a detailed historical overview of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq and the consequent unfolding disaster there, the chapter also draws conclusions about the ideological and conceptual substructure of America’s “war on terror,” and investigates how an aspect of the imperial prerogative of the United States is to exercise decisive power to ensure that terms like “just war,” “torture,” “terrorism,” and “civilian” are defined in its own favor.
This is the power of institutions, the ability to control language, to define how we understand the words that come out of our mouth. They bequeath us our languages, our words, they ensure they are passed on from one generation to the next. They, as Althusser has stated enforce “submission to the rules of the established order, i.e. a reproduction of submission to the ruling ideology for the workers, and a reproduction of the ability to manipulate the ruling ideology correctly for the agents of exploitation and repression, so that they, too, will provide for the domination of the ruling class ‘in words’.
The internet is for modern states the means of internal communication. States are basically conglomerations of institutions, and once the state can effectively communicate to and within these institutions, its influence is assured. The point at which the American state cannot communicate with its internal administration is the point to which its influence wanes. Probably about 40 light years away from Washington.
Yet at the same time if the means by which an Empire operates is through its means of communication, those means of communication have never been so vulnerable as WikiLeaks has highlighted. Because of the sheer number of people that have access to a range of internal communications, (think of Manning’s ability to access so much files that were above his station), Assange estimates that 71,000 people work in U.S government agencies worldwide, the means of the state to work without its direct agenda being exposed is more vulnerable than ever. It’s interesting to note briefly here the trouble Donald Trump is having with Washington at the moment and the number of leaks that are happening there, that shows, surprisingly enough, that internal bureaucracies have some degree of personality.
That is a pretty severe achilles heel that no doubt the Empire is looking to rid itself by placing all of its ill guided faith in personality tests and algorithms, but at the same time, never before was an administration susceptible to the transcript of its truth being broadcast to so many so quickly.
These are some of the symbiotic relationships through which the internet has enhanced people’s lives. The effects of this relationship have been bloody and violent as power has retaliated back but they aimed at positive freedoms, to expand the potential to life in a civil capacity and didn’t have conservatism as its goal. Yet if you were to look at how the war in Syria was framed by the narratives constructed by the states involved you would believe it was something like a coup d’etat by an external agency i.e. Islamic State that brought the war to the innocent Assange rather than it initially being a rising that began without the ideological baggage of -isms but seeked rather an expansion to the civil sphere.
What was ultimately aimed at was a re-creation of the democratic sphere, the sphere where people come together to make decisions regarding the conditions of their life, rather than the conditions of their life being imposed upon them.
They are what Hannah Arendt would describe as revolutionary as they aim at freedom, at the creation of a civil sphere while the state apparatus’ are intent at repression, at narrowing the civil sphere to the point that it no longer exists and all decisions are made by a narrow diktat, an oligarchical sphere that we are edging ever closer to.
Ok so that’s just a rude trajectory of my own rather narrow view of our symbiotic relationship with digital communicative technology and especially how it interrupts previous social structures that were all top down channels of discourse to a more interactive platform, one in which we can share ideas and information and broadcast ideas more efficiently. How this influences and alters society in one way is of the paramount interest to any sociologist while so too is the kickback. It is the kickback we are currently experiencing, or at least it currently feels like that.
So if that’s all tangled up in the positive aspects of our relationships to technology, what about the parasitic aspects of the relationship? The fact that it mediates our relationship with, dare I say it, reality. That it is the hourly engagement with various forms of media that is the chief input into the grey matter of our heads, scaffolding our thoughts, constructing our view of the world, both at that particular moment but also over time, in the way stalagmites form, formless at first then physical.
And not just that, the construction of how we perceive ourselves in relation to the world but also that it is slowly becoming the world. That this non-physical space that exists within the frame of the scheme is becoming the environment at which we are adapting to rather quickly, where the rules of social engagement are compartmentalised in a way that keeps the bureaucrat at ease. Our social engagements in real life, especially with strangers, are terrains plagued with mines where we exist in a state of hyper anxiety having bereft of smileys and emoticons to navigate the arbitrariness of life away from screen.
It is as if we immerse part of our very selves, our souls into the waters of hyper connectivity that lay beyond the screen and lives half in this world, half in that, never quite experiencing either. It is borderline parasitic, keeping our desires hostage to an urge we believe will be satiated by checking once more our Facebook, twitter, gmail, slack, instagram, tumblr, the list goes on.
Yet is all this necessary, do we not have a choice to use the internet in such a way? Can we not use it like the telephone as old, only engaging with it when it rings. For the writer Mark Fisher, the salient point of why the internet is being used and constructed in such a way, i.e. in a way that is invasive, both in a manner that it is constantly on our person and that it mines so much of our personal experiences, archiving them as evidence for the crime of existence, is that it is invasive because Capitalism as it exists now without it being so.
Capital has no need for labour any more that is stagnant and confined by a geographical space, the possibilities of consumption are always on and thus labour needs to be always on. If anyone has seen the movie Christine will know that the lead character Christine, a television journalist is losing favour with her boss because the type of stories she is reporting are of community interest stories so she gets a police radio and leaves it at her bedside locker where she is no longer able to sleep due to the constant interruptions. She is however fulfilling her bosses demand. Work is no longer 9-5.
Mark Fisher defines this parasitic phenomenon of “smart” technology and its necessity to “late” capitalism below in an interview with Dazed Digital..
Control doesn’t any more need to operate by directly intervening in the brain: rather, we ourselves go “voluntarily” to technology to be controlled, becoming addicted to the clicking of our smartphones and the red alert-stimulus of social media. Of course this appearance of voluntarism and choice is itself highly controlled – by the libidinal engineering (PR, branding and advertising) which constantly cyberblitzes our brains and nervous systems.
As the structural make up of society shifts from being based on the production of goods to one based on the provision of services, so too does the manner in which power executes its control over a populace. We have moved, in Deleuze’s words, from a society of the panopticon in which the threat of we being observed makes man act as if his boss is always standing over his shoulder to one in which we are given the “freedom” to work even outside the factory and in our own homes, but this freedom comes at a cost of always potentially being at the beck and call of one’s boss.
Free time, like everything else in capitalist society, has been alienated from itself.
All the old institutions of power are crumbling but in this vacuum new forms of power are taking their place. One just need reflect on why services like Facebook which do not charge the user a service fee are one of the most valuable companies in the world. The same with Google. They are creating the parameters of our lives, collating our searchable desires and facilitating our sense of increased freedom.
It is important for the society of control to maintain the illusion of freedom, but we should note the ways in which freedom here is not merely an illusion. One can say or do whatever one wants, at least within the circumscribed parameters. Most of us fall within those parameters without even thinking about it—since the only forms of discourse truly proscribed are radical indictments of our political system, calls to “terrorist” action, and the like—and so experience ourselves as fully free to express our views, live our lives, and so on. The important thing to grasp is the way in which an apparatus of power can exert control over us precisely by letting us “do whatever we want.
In being always on, on being constantly within capital’s grasp we are confined by the mediated reality that is voiced by power. We are granted freedoms but when we act on them such as what occurred in Syria, we are met with violent and brutal opposition. Can we still envision a techno utopia when the promise of such was buried more than a decade ago?
Is the smartphone a noose or a shears?
I have failed to answer my own question.
All images taken from ChromeDestroyer (they’re really cool and worth checking out more https://www.instagram.com/chromedestroyer/ )
The Thin Air, an Irish music magazine published this essay of mine on Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express on its 40th anniversary and it’s importance as both radical critique of European integration and an exploration of its necessity. Have a read of it through the link below.
“It captures the increasing conformity that is necessary for the integration of Europe to occur yet also the anxiety of the slow disintegration of any escape, of any alternative mode of being. It is only when the showroom dummies go to a club and dance, that the dummies become human.”
Birigitta Jonsdottir is an anomaly in European politics. Think of her as one of our own fabled poet/revolutionaries of 1916 who were both artist and politician. She is a poet yes, first and foremost. A dreamer, as is the nature of poets, a creator of new worlds in the words she writes on the page. But a politician also, the legislators of words that so often confine worlds.
There is a tension here yes, but the founder of the Pirate Party in Iceland is also a coder, who communicate through a language on functioning systems. It’s quite a strange language coders use, one that’s express purpose is to convert sequences of digits to carry out a function. Its signifier the surrounding code in the surrounding system, its language does not radiate with meaning like previous communicative languages. A lie would be rejected by the system.
It’s this other language, this other world that Birigitta often inhabits, a world that few artists, never mind politicians have previously inhibited. The landscape of this language is the internet, a landscape that twenty years ago had few frontiers in sight.
This is quite a weird space to exit within. The endlessness of the internet’s frontier, the promise of promise upon promise, that could be realised in the highly structured, and rigid language of code.
In this new communicative space, life was not so mediated by relentless consumerism and the ‘news’ that exists on television and radio. One had access to a means of communication that existed beyond consumption.
Watch this video of Birigitta Jonsdottir below as she talks of the Pirate Party, democracy and surveillance. Will transcribe this hopefully at a later date.