How to fight it.
There is a popular photo app called Prisma that takes a user’s smartphone photo and passes it through a series of filters and automatic rotoscoping to produce something between a Roman mosaic and a watercolor painting. This manipulation of reality creates works of art from what may otherwise be mundane, poorly composed photos–a boon for those of us who have never taken a good photo in their lives. “Artists beware! AI is coming for your paintbrush too…” warns a Techcrunch review quoted on the app’s website. But far from simply automating the jobs of artisans, something technology has done for centuries under capitalism, Prisma takes our drab reality and makes it appear as an image on a fun house mirror. This isn’t so much a They Live scenario where we are lied to directly (though that certainly happens), as it is a deliberate move on our part. We fracture the image in front of us, preferring a more compelling version, something that is ready made for sharing on the networked world of social media, and the curated lives we offer there.
Adam Curtis’s recent Hypernormalization posits that, more and more, our experiences are becoming uncoupled with the picture of the world that are presented by the media elites and governments and mediated by traditional systems of power. And we know this, but there is little we feel we can do, because any standards of behavior or mechanisms of power checking are completely undermined. Bankers break the law and do horrible things resulting in millions losing their jobs and homes, but they aren’t prosecuted. Cops shoot unarmed blacks in the back and plant evidence, all on camera, but face no jail time. Wars are waged on lies around terror or good western morals, but when the lies are exposed and the reports point to those responsible, the purveyors are let off and hailed as elder statesmen. And to all of us, the results come off as completely expected and normal; to have a chain of cause and effect would be the truly striking thing. Hypernormalization is our individual and collective attempt to make order of the barrage of nonsense–to accept not just the unacceptable, but the impossible.
For Curtis, who released his film in October, a figure like Donald Trump (and his electoral success) fits perfectly into this off-kilter bizarro-world. Trump called the bluff of the traditional elite and their pantomime grasp of power. He used the sheer confusion of the Prismatic apparatus to rise to power, making not a straightforward case for why he should become president, as exemplar of traditional state power Hillary Clinton tried to do, but via misdirection from the linear narrative of the election and sometimes a complete rejection of recent historical facts. Trump is the affirmation of this new disjointed reality, in a Gibsonian sense, he is the living avatar of the Tessier-Ashpool family who sleep while the twin algorithms of facebook and financial capitalism system drive up their profits with credit and clicks.
Communist writer Jodi Dean calls this “communicative capitalism.” The feedback loops of Facebook, which, to her, is just a giant platform for users to do unpaid labor on behalf of the giant tech corporations, provide users with a pressure valve with from which to release our thoughts. In Blog Theory she writes that this is “the ideology of communicative capitalism, everything can be said; nothing need be denied. Every aspect of contemporary life is reflected upon, criticized, mocked – and then the reflections, criticisms, and mockeries are themselves reflected upon, criticized, mocked.”
While the Clintons and Blairs make doomed runs at the melting vestiges of power, the left likewise fails to mount truly effective alternatives in this system. Since the 1980’s era, the network served a non-hierarchical bastion for parts of the countercultural left while Reagan, the last politician with real visionary power (as evil as it was), and his neoliberal policies took their revanchist toll on the gains made under keynesianism and the myriad movements of the 1950s and 60s. But this retreat denied the truth: though the networks appeared to allow for free exchange among equal nodes, the web was never a place that could truly be ours to master and to own.
Occupy is offered as an example. A crisis caused by financialization and overzealous models has at its center the algorithmic drive for profits. The confusing system of credit swaps and market mechanisms is only possible because of the massive decision trees of the blackrock group and others which process massive amounts of data and spit out the course of action for futuristic speculators. But the algorithms also networked the initial mobilization and the supposed decentralization of cyberspace is taken as a vision of the future and he politics to get us there. Utopian dreams, were forced into the gap where material analysis was missing or, quite often, simply denied a place in these movements because of its connection to the old ways of doing things. As Dean says, “communicative capitalism captures critique and resistance, formatting them as contributions to the circuits in which it thrives.” The heuristics could, at best, project the movement back at itself and subsume the outburst back into the incomplete reality internalized by the networks. Very quickly we got stuck in a bubble. Far from heightening the contradictions of the systems we fought against, by failing to challenge the power of the bankers directly, occupy only fed their models with more data which it could exploit at a later date. This works for those in the 1% who own the networks, but not for the rest of us.
Patton Oswalt has a joke from the early 2000s about ubiquitous reality TV. Hollywood screenwriters, he feared, would have to begin to write our daily lives in order to stave off the horizon of a “huge wall of white silence” rolling at us because “we filmed it all.” But they couldn’t write anything too boring, the producer wouldn’t allow it, so we’d begin to live inside something like a summer blockbuster for life. Curtis says we’re already there. The 1990’s saw the success of dozens of disaster films about meteors striking the Earth, volcanoes erupting under cities and godzilla doing battle on the Brooklyn Bridge. These were, in a way, the collective expression of angst that the new politics of the 1980’s onward offered: no good future, only risk management. Then in 2001, the nightmare became a reality with the smashing of the twin towers. Anymore, we have no future so we must fill it in somehow, but it’s not a summer blockbuster we’re living in, it’s a reality show.
Today we know the truth about reality TV that we half suspected in the time of Oswalt’s jokes: There is actually a lot of scripting, outtakes and editorializing that goes into their production. Indeed, to be in on it is part of the attraction. And more and more its stars–the Kardashians or the Bachelorette—shape the world outside their prime time blocks, inviting us further into their secret world. This isn’t simply by providing water cooler talk, but by moving to a central place in our politics: what does Kim Kardashian have to say about feminism? Then there is a scarier, more direct, incursion of a reality star into a position of power; though Trump will not host the next seasons of The Apprentice, he will stay on as executive producer while also serving as president–shaping the reality tv which shapes the reality if it daily lives. The feedback loop affirming the cartoon vision.
What does our fight look like in these conditions? Two recent interviews on Chapo Trap House offer some suggestions. The first comes from Ezekiel Kweku of MTV, who was on the show to discuss a piece he wrote about how to organize to defeat growing white nationalism. For Kweku, Trump won over Hillary because, at a base level he was able to express both an understanding of where we are at, by acknowledging the failures of NAFTA and Obamacare, and articulating a vision for a new world. “Politics is a matter of storytelling in a way that appeals to people’s self interest… What narrative appeals to me and my self interest.”
On the last episode, Curtis was interviewed, and after some technical glitches, re-recorded a five minute response to a question about what to do in this hypernormal reality. “I think change only comes through a big imaginative idea,” says Curtis, and to keep society from going “off in ways you really don’t want” we must put forward “ a powerful vision of the future, with all its dangers.” He Continues:
It would be an escape from the staticness of the world that we have today. To do that, you’ve got to engage with the giant forces of power that now run the world at the moment. In confronting those powers and trying to transform the world, you might lose a lot. This is a forgotten idea, that you surrender yourself to a big idea, and in the process you might lose something, but you’d actually gain in a bigger sense, because you’d change the world for the better.
In The Communist Horizon, Dean connects surrendering yourself to a “big idea” to the necessity of a political party in order to capture and weaponize a “collective desire to be collective.”
Back during the Kweku interview, Will Menaker, one of the hosts of Chapo, put this bluntly: “the candidate must articulate a moral vision.” The liberals are trapped in Prismatic lies about the state of America, and Hillary Clinton’s rebuttal to Trump’s “Make America Great Again”–”America is already great”–is exemplary of this. There is an inverted utopianism here; while the Utopian socialists criticised by Marx and Engels looked for a way out of the mass drudgery after the failure of the French Revolution, Clinton and the Liberals are often unwilling to admit there’s a problem at all (or, when they do, it’s directed at some mythical poor racist white who deserves it). And her failure to express any kind of moral vision was best illustrated by her completely meaningless statement on the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, which, at the time had come to a very dangerous head. I’ll quote it here in full:
We received a letter today from representatives of the tribes protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. From the beginning of this campaign, Secretary Clinton has been clear that she thinks all voices should be heard and all views considered in federal infrastructure projects. Now, all of the parties involved—including the federal government, the pipeline company and contractors, the state of North Dakota, and the tribes—need to find a path forward that serves the broadest public interest. As that happens, it’s important that on the ground in North Dakota, everyone respects demonstrators’ rights to protest peacefully, and workers’ rights to do their jobs safely.
It is a completely uninspiring moral vision. There is no acknowledgement of the divisions that exist at the protests (or in our society in general), no mention of the horrible condition of American Indians. The best that can be offered is, perhaps, a peace pipe summit at some time in the future where the protestors, the cops and the contractors can learn about and respect each other. The protests, the black snake, the spraying of water houses and reigning of concussion rounds are passed through the prism and produce something like our myths of the first thanksgiving. But then there’s the coda: the DAPL protestors won at least more time with the denial of the permit to build the last segment of the pipeline.
We should think about how they did this. How they managed to cut through the demonization and betrayal by the presidential candidates, the fetishization and essentialization in the media and internet, the police barrage and build a movement based, at least partly, on the idea of a militant encampment not unlike Occupy. Also like Occupy, they could tell a story of the greedy bankers and mark clear, this time making the camp the latest battle site in the 500 year old colonial history of Indian genocide, removal and resistance. This struggle has, for the last 200 years (during when it was often the most brutal and open) been a fightback against capitalist expansion westward across the continent. That is the case here, as the drive for profits is again, driving people from their land.
But, crucially, there are a few difference to draw out. The most important is the supply chain of resources and support from the rest of the country into Standing Rock. By realizing the strength of centering, not dispersing, the protest at the one location (mainly because of the need to stand as a physical barrier to the construction), it allowed for a controlled flow of goods into and information to and from Standing Rock. Unlike Occupy the encampment and the protesters were not single nodes in a network, but the locus of organization nationally. The different topology points to a different form of struggle.
And what it also points to is that we can overcome the influence of the hypernormal. It begins simply by rejecting the Prismafication of our lives. Our historic outlook needs to take material conditions into account, to begin anywhere else would foredoom our project to failure. Likewise, utopian visions alone aren’t enough. Dean’s defense of the party form as the only left vehicle that can affect the moral vision that Curtis emphasizes should be taken much more seriously, especially as Occupy shows us what happens when we have no vision and no party. And I think we’re seeing that. There has been explosive growth of left organizations post-election, and my own organization Socialist Alternative was able to intervene successfully nationwide, getting some 40,000 people out to protests that we called for in the first several days. These protests are clarifying class divisions that our Prismatic lens obscures and the program and battles we wage need to take that seriously. Finally, we should move the battle field to the real world and demand the the powers of curation that we have in the networked world in real life. It is not so much a fight over competing narratives, but over reality itself.