Thursday, September 17, 2015
"Absolute Informational Transparency": in the spirit of political debate
Watching the most recent GOP debate taking place tonight – 9/16/2015 – one has the feeling that there is nothing left to say. As we hear the same talking points and monomaniacal grandstanding that we heard four years ago, and four years before that, it becomes clear that any frustrated exclamation, any attempt to transcend the theatrical madness through bipartisan entreaties or decrying the futility of the system, simply dies abruptly in its impotence, snagging pathetically like a broken snare drum. We are caught, by no fault of our own, in an ideological tangle that allows for no satisfying reprieve, no utterance that could possibly convey something meaningful beyond the nauseating semantic web of political discourse. I realize, of course, that I’m falling victim to a kind of fallacious infinite regress, a paradox of purpose: my statement here inevitably falls victim to the impotence that it struggles to avoid. What I write fails in its attempt to take shelter from the political winds. Or, if by some slim chance my plea is successful, it’s probably only because it comes off as whiny.
The contemporary climate of conservative demagoguery is at a level that threatens, in my opinion, to destabilize any remaining semblance of cooperation and communication between the left and the right. This is a climate change every bit as dangerous as ecological climate change (and every bit as measurable). Over the past several decades (since the Reagan era), conservative ideologues have hermetically sealed themselves off into strategic echo chambers. Conservative talk radio remains an AM megaphone, hearing very little (call-ins aren’t for the purpose of educating the jockey, after all) yet shouting a great deal (and somehow actually saying very little). In a recent piece on The Atlantic, Oliver Morrison asked why there isn’t any conservative equivalent to Jon Stewart; in this excellent piece, Morrison also addressed the plethora of liberal satirical talk shows such as The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, yet the dearth of liberal radio shows. Morrison cites Dannagal Young, a scholar from the University of Delaware, who suggests that liberals and conservatives enjoy different kinds of humor: in short, conservatives prefer “indignation and hyperbole,” while liberals enjoy “irony” (Morrison). Rodney Lee Connover, producer of a conservative satire titled The Flipside (N.B. – this is a conservative satire, not a satire of conservatism), takes issue with Young’s analysis, claiming it insinuates that liberals are smarter than conservatives; but Young maintains this is not the case: “Young insists the hypothesis is not about intelligence; it’s about a preferred structure of jokes. She maintains that there’s nothing inherently better about liking ironic jokes over exaggerated ones” (Morrison).
Acknowledging the depth and accuracy of Morrison’s article (accuracy in targeting an issue, that is, not necessarily diagnosing it), I want to turn to an article published ten years earlier: David Foster Wallace’s “Host,” from 2005. In this brilliant essay, entertaining and informative in a way that only DFW can deliver, the author, in a brief aside, offers his own explanation for the dearth of left-wing talk radio shows:
Notwithstanding all sorts of interesting other explanations, the single biggest reason why left-wing talk radio experiments like Air America or the Ed Schultz program are not likely to succeed, at least not on a national level, is that their potential audience is just not dissatisfied enough with today’s mainstream news sources to feel that they have to patronize a special type of media to get the unbiased truth. (316)
Wallace refers here to the MMLB: mainstream media liberal bias, a notion largely created and promulgated by Rush Limbaugh. According to Wallace, because of “his own talent and the popularity of his show, Rush has been able to move partisan distrust for the ‘mainstream liberal media’ into the mainstream itself” (315). In other words, Wallace suggests that the success of conservative talk radio stems from its listeners’ distrust of more mainstream outlets such as CNN or MCNBC. It is tempting, at this point, to accuse conservative talk radio of promoting rightist agendas and ideology, just as conservatives accuse the mainstream media of being liberally biased; but such accusations miss the mark. No media outlet or institution can be described as either liberal or conservative despite the convictions of its talking heads. The news, Wallace reminds us, is a business, and no matter which way a jockey, anchor, program, or station leans, the business is in it to make money. Even if an institution considers conservatism or liberalism to be a public good, in the sense that everyone would be better off believing in it, it wouldn’t be in the business’s best financial interest to promulgate that particular view: “Because the time and money my one company would spend trying to spread the Truth would yield (at best) only a tiny increase in the conservatism of the whole country – and yet the advantages of that increased conservatism would be shared by everyone, including my radio competitors” (290). In other words, the notion of media qua media being liberally or conservatively biased is a fallacy. Media doesn’t care one way or another; people care, and we can gauge a hell of a lot about a large percentage of the population’s beliefs by tracking their listening and viewing habits.
All this is just to say that none of us are escaping any kind of brainwashing by avoiding certain media venues. We know what we already believe, and we go to these venues in order to hear these beliefs echoed back to us.[i] This raises an important and possibly unsettling question: where do we go to escape the ideological backwash, the unceasing tides of political rhetoric? In our time (over the past century, I would claim), politics has infiltrated all aspects of life; and this is neither good nor bad – it simply is. All matter of topics has become political, and while it may result in frustration, it also forces us to discuss issues that may otherwise slip past us unnoticed. Alas, I also admit to experiencing frustration, primarily because the chatter is inescapable, especially with the advent of social media. George Orwell critiqued the quality of political speech in 1946, its ambiguity and contagious effects; but Orwell could not have foreseen (or if he did, he didn’t give any clue) the absolute political saturation of the public and private spheres via technological media.[ii] William Gibson comments on this saturation in an article from 2003, aptly titled “The Road to Oceania,” in which he suggests that “we are approaching a theoretical state of absolute informational transparency, one in which ‘Orwellian’ scrutiny is no longer a strictly hierarchical, top-down activity, but to some extent a democratized one. As individuals steadily lose degrees of privacy, so too do corporations and states” (168). The rhetoric of the politician works its way ever more parasitically into everyday life, infiltrating the speech of private individuals and the headlines of all medial forms – but this infiltration works both ways, and the more the politicians venture into our living rooms, the more we poke our noses into theirs.
At this point political language reaches its critical mass. At the first of the recent series of GOP debates, Donald Trump explicitly acknowledged the financial games at play behind political arrangements, citing his own experience as a private businessperson and his deals with various political figures in the past. More recently, Lindsey Graham responded to Bobby Jindal’s accusation that Graham failed to mobilize congress against Obama’s Affordable Care Act by explaining the political reality of the situation: “Even if you eliminated the filibuster, Graham says, there is still this thing called a ‘veto’” (Newell).[iii] In other words, we are witnessing, more and more frequently, the introduction of translation into the folds of political speech. Politicians now take to explaining away the equivocations and elisions of their opponents’ rhetoric; but they do so through the venue of the political platform, thus transforming political translation back into political rhetoric. This is what I am calling the “critical mass” of political language: the point at which Orwellian political speech incorporates its own translation as part of its ideological strategy.
Of course, this is not to say that such maneuvers escape the logic of conservatism or politics in general. These ploys still serve specific ideological ends, and they still partake of rhetorical strategy. “Translation,” Lyotard reminds us, “is itself a language game” (21). Set forth in the drapery of righteous explanation, this tactic of political translation can only be a short-term play. I wouldn’t even say it’s only a matter of time, because I think it is already obvious to most people that these tactics, while possibly refreshing, do not manage to void the hermetic echo chamber of contemporary political discourse. And this is what causes the sense of inescapability I mentioned earlier; for when our politicians begin coopting the appeals to translation and explanation left to us as critical and informed viewers/voters, what are we left with? Any utterance is absorbed into the rhetorical sphere or deemed irresponsible (such as “I’m sick of this, to hell with it”). The problem, of course, is that many of us are sick of it all, but we also want to be a part of it all. “It’s impossible to leave, but we can’t stay,” as one contemporary songwriter croons. The only option, it seems, is participation.
Can participation be emancipatory? Does criticism amount to anything more than partisan polemics? Can speech be anything other than political? In an essay published in 1999, titled “Authority and American Usage” (and conveniently subtitled “or, ‘Politics and the English Language’ is redundant”), Wallace claims that maintaining a truly democratic spirit in contemporary political debate is so difficult that “it’s almost irresistibly tempting to fall in with some established dogmatic camp and to follow that camp’s line on the issue and to let your position harden within the camp and become inflexible and to believe that the other camps are either evil or insane” (72).[iv] In other words, Wallace does seem to acknowledge some exterior space, some vantage point capable of assuming a democratic and populist perspective on the issues at hand; but it’s highly unlikely that most people can adopt and maintain such a perspective. In fact, this claim begs the question of whether or not there is more than one distanced, democratic perspective at all; and if there isn’t, and we all were able to achieve it, then (theoretically) we would all suddenly be in agreement…
Or maybe not. Maybe the perspective that Wallace espouses isn’t actually free of ideology, but merely able to recognize the contours of its own ideological commitments. Such a view would hardly be apolitical, but would be able to acknowledge any accusations that it falls victim to certain ideological assumptions. Indeed, the possibility of such agreement seems ideal; but it also seems pointlessly utopian. Would such democratic agreement provide room for change, space for development? Or would it simply result in idle patronizing and stubborn refusal: “You’re right, my statement is susceptible to the charge you levied; but I still think it’s correct.” In other words, would this ideal democratic space simply expand the echo chamber of current political discourse, making it even more vast, complex, and differentiated? Would this actually do us any good?
This post has been an attempt to do what I said at the beginning was impossible: it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. But I want to end on a note of potential rather than foreclosure. If there’s one element of modern society that has led to this notion of democratic, populist discourse, of the ubiquity of political language and rhetoric, and of our near-total (if not total) saturation in it, it is – plain and simple – media. Wallace knew this and wrote about it intensely in both his fiction and nonfiction. Media is a technological development. It has ties to human ingenuity and creativity, but it has expanded and developed largely beyond the scope of human intentions and expectations. This is one of the most important lessons of history: that we have only a minute degree of control over our material conditions. It has been the contention of Marxist historiographers that by taking control of the means of production and material conditions the people can regain a sense of immediacy within their environment and take charge of history. But there are some within the Marxist community – I’m thinking of Walter Benjamin – who see technological development as harboring implicit emancipatory potential that does not reduce to human control. Technology may develop on its own and pursue its own course; but this does not preclude its capacity to provide means of improved existence within the human community.
Long story short, if media is responsible for our currently gregarious political quagmire, then perhaps some future development of technology will present us with a means of filtering the noise in pursuit of the signal.
Gibson, William. “The Road to Oceania.” Distrust That Particular Flavor. New York: Penguin, 2012. 163-172.
Lyotard, Jean-François. “Wittgenstein ‘After.’” Political Writings. Trans. Bill Readings and Kevin Paul Geiman. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993. 19-24.
Morrison, Oliver. “Waiting For the Conservative Jon Stewart.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 14 February 2015.
Wallace, David Foster. “Authority and American Usage: or, ‘Politics and the English Language’ is redundant.” Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. New York: Back Bay Books, 2005. 66-127.
–. “Host.” Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. New York: Back Bay Books, 2005. 275-343.
[i] This is not to imply that people’s views can’t change. I personally admit to experiencing a certain sea change in ideological commitments while earning my MA at University of Chicago. However, there is a huge difference between going to school and watching the news: solid and effective educations are intended to force us to question our convictions, while media serves the sole purpose of reinforcing those convictions.
[ii] Of course, Orwell did note the potential political instrumentality of the television, demonstrated by the towering and domineering screens that loom over the hapless denizens of Oceania.
[iii] There have been appropriately excited responses to these statements in the media. Jim Newell’s piece in Slate, for example, is titled “Lindsey Graham Just Called BS on the GOP Primary.”
[iv] A footnote acknowledges that such camps never form in a vacuum, but always seem to form in opposition to other camps.