Saturday, March 17, 2012

Murdoch and the security entertainment complex

I’m amused by this article on Murdoch's cowtowing to Maggie Thatcher in order to get his greasy paws on the Times.

I'm amused, that is, that the current scandals in England are going back so far.

The major things afoot in the gimcrack world of the Great Moderation, constructed out of “free” trade (a curious beast, which was hatched when the standard elite policy of lowering taxes on businessmen suddenly generated metaphysical wings), the worldwide exchange of democracy for mucho security against the high improbability of terrorist mugging, and the other trade of all things on heaven and earth (including the future composition of the atmosphere) for a little comfort in the present overshadow the comical Murdoch scandals. Still, the timing shows that God, or Nemesis, really is the greatest stand up comedian.  What better con-fuckup than this one, involving the heavily bribed police, celebrities, and the lizard like fourth estate?

During the twentieth century, the penetration of the media into the private sphere was seen by a few illuminés in world historic terms – I’m pointing at you,  Joseph Goebbels and J. Edgar Hoover. 
During the great period of the capitalist transformation in the nineteenth century, the police forces were reformed and re-distributed, and attracted reforms in turn: such as the enumeration of houses in cities, which, in France, was first adopted as a military measure in garrison towns, and then, under Fouche, Napoleon’s minister of security, began to be imposed on Paris (and reached other cities later – in the 1840s, Lyon still did not have a strong address system). Wherever Napoleon’s armies went, police were sure to follow – and as Napoleon’s armies pulled back and Napoleon was defeated, the police – at least as a structure – stayed. In England, the creation of a modern police force followed in the 1820s. The bourgeoisie, of course, loved their police – but the masses still loved their legendary robbers, and still fought the police daily in the street, where police work was largely directed towards disciplining the mass of drunks, whiners, perverts, whores, and anarchists that constituted the class laborieuse et dangereuse.

The rise of the police force not only as the quotidian tool of social repression, but as a form of entertainment that allowed us all to enjoy social repression, may have been prehended in the nineteenth century, but its existence is one of the striking features of the twentieth century. The folkloric rival of the Sheriff of Nottingham hasn’t had a chance. Social repression comes with the contract, of course. If you aren’t going to have revolution and whatever comes next – every example of which, in the twentieth century, created monster police – then the contract of capital in its neo-liberal phase (Section 4., line 10a) specifies that you will have entertainment police, a police force that oscillates between radio show (and then tv show) and the SWAT team. A police force that seizes the attention of those whose own livelihoods radically decrease in entertainment value the more life is wholly oriented towards them.  Ultimately, police are just extremely inefficient regulators – regulators of the last resort – and the paradox is that, in a culture in which regulation has become a bad word and the regulator treated as a menace to all the good things that would flow if we just let the capitalist genius of the entrepreneur flourish, the most inefficient regulators have been given carte blanche not only by the governing elite (who has a contempt for the police that emerges every time the police union negotiates salaries), but by the middle class that identifies with them. And even if they don’t identify with them, they cannot get enough entertainment value from them. In the security-entertainment complex, this comes to the same thing.

The security-entertainment complex doesn’t, of course, just run through tv. As prison replaced apartheid in the U.S., the last redoubt against the Sheriff of Sherwood Forest became hip-hop, which absorbed the  flyting and bragging songs of traditional culture in a kind of parody of resistance – a parody because it was a resistance connected to no political force whatsoever, for the political force had been vacuumed up neatly by the security-entertainment complex. Within the vacuum, the counter-force that emerges knows itself through the entertainment that leads it on a merry eternal return of the same, from money to prison and back, endlessly.

It is funny to watch the tabloids and the police in the UK bump into each other, as one of the tools of the glorious Bush-Blair-Berlusconi era comes as undone as the former two’s hopeless war on terrorism. Not that the war won’t continue to roll on – and not that anti-democratic cretinization, now in its baroque stage, won’t also continue to roll on. Popular demand, you know. The slogan under which the democracies, where the massive self-destructive machine is switched to on, is still as pertinent as when James Chance and the Contortions first posed it in the Reagan era: “Take out all the garbage that's in your brain ... Why don't you try being stupid instead of smart?”       

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Rumor 1


If in one direction, pheme/kleos moves towards the universal knowledge vested within the people – towards common sense – in another direction, it moves towards rumor, the “angel of ruin”, the fama of Virgil’s Aeneid, the beast perched on the gates of the city:   “Furth she quicklye gallons, with wingflight swallolyke hastning,/A foule fog pack paunch: what feathers plumye she heareth,/so manye squint eyeballs shee keeps (a relation uncoth)/So manye tongues clapper, with her ears and lip labor eevened./ In the dead of nighttime to the skyes shee flickereth, howling/Through the earth shade skipping, her sight from slumber amooving./Whilst the sun is shying the baggage close lodgeth in housroofs,/or tops of turrets, with feare towns loftye she frighteth,/As readye forged fittons, as true tales vayneley toe twattle.” [101, Translation by Richard Stanyhurst, ed. 1895 by Edward Arber, p.101] Such an image could as well be applied to the kind of “rumor panics” in Borneo in 1979, as reported by anthropologist Richard Allan Drake. In the longhouse of the village of Sungai Mulae, he was told that the government was building a bridge nearby, and that of course, they would send out kidnappers to snatch somebody and sacrifice them to the bridge. The village was, ostensibly, Christianized, yet rumors like these “flew” about often; in fact, Drake establishes that the form of this rumor was recurrent in Borneo. It was recorded on the North coast of Borneo as early as 1910; it was recorded in Sandong River region in 1949; and in 1981, it was recorded in the Meratus mountains. In fact, if we extend our search from Borneo to other regions of the world, we find that, for instance, in pre-Revolutionary France, there were rumors about the kidnapping of children and women by the government of King Louis XV; and there was the persistent rumor in Czarist Russia of Jews kidnapping Christian children to use their blood.

Although the circumstances and meanings of these rumors are different, their reappearence puts them in the category of “Tauchgerüchte”, diver rumors – they dive up and they dive down – that was so named by L.A. Bysow, a Russian sociologist who wrote a seminal analysis of rumors that appeared in the twenties, and then disappears from sociological literature. Like many one article authors, Bysow’s position in the construction of the sociology of rumor suffers, itself, from odd distortions – for instance, he is often quoted as D.A. Brysow (for instance, by Curtis Macdougall in his book, Understanding Public Opinion (1952). Bysow borrows the late nineteenth century notion of contagion to model rumors according to an epidemiology, thus continuing a very old analogy between logos and seed. The invisible microbe that replaced the miasma model fit comfortably with the word as organic – and indeed, the word is the product of an organism. In fact, the analogy between sickness and rumor is encoded even in Virgil’s image, for this monstrous bird of ill or true fame conveys the word from mouth to ear in the city bears a visible likeness to the winged demons who shoot the arrows of sickness in the city. Both sickness and rumor “fly”. And both are mass phenomena, often leading to panic. And, in a quiet division between true fame and false, rumors have, over time, been associated exclusively with distortion. The rumor is often treated by the sociologist as though, by definition, it must be false. As often happens, the sociologist is simply following the cop, here – for the justification of using police action against rumor is precisely that it falsifies, as though there were some connection between hegemonic power and the truth

Rumor is the illegitimate sibling – at least mythopoetically – of public opinion. Drake connects rumor in Borneo is connected to the dominance of the “oral” in Borneo society. The logic of evidence here feeds on itself – unlike the written, which requires a process of mediation that engages the body as scriptor, the medium as the object inscribed, and the eye as reader, rumor, like the word itself, springs directly from the tongue and flies to the ear. Bysow speaks of its chain-like characteristic – depending on face to face communication, it creates a public of a sort out of haptic space – the kind of public that Gabriel Tarde, writing in the late nineteenth century, classified as essentially the primitive form of the public: the crowd.

In the early modern period in France, as Arlette Farge shows in Dire et Mal Dire, the word on the street was as much a vehicle of news as any official chronicle. Indeed, news was subdivided between the official histories, the private journals, and the gazetins of the police – police reports composed from the reports of the mouchards, the spies, that the police planted in the population. Louis XV enjoyed having these gazetins read to him. The relation of those in power to those underneath is mediated by a concern, on the part of both parties, with what is thought by the other – a concern in which the police can act as brokers. In World War II, there devolved upon some sub-officers the duty of filling out rumor reports – for officers and the upper management of the security apparatus were obsessed with the damage rumor could do. It was during the war that Allport and Postman studied rumors through a series of experiments, in which an image, seen by some subject, was then described by that subject to someone who couldn’t see the image. Then a chain of accounts is produced as the second person tells a third person (who also can’t see the image) about it, and so on. The sadistic element in the experiment (for psychology experiments almost always contain some element that displays the gratuituous power of the experimenter) is that these accounts are made in front of an audience that can see the slide on the screen, while those describing the image have to keep their backs turned to the screen.

Notice two things about Allport and Postman’s experiments. The first is the idea, which forms the whole basis of the experiment, that the story communicated by the rumor is – in contradiction to that reported by, say, the experimenter – essentially distorted. The distortion here is given to us in the frame of the report – although we who read the report cannot ourselves examine the slides, we are told, without any shadow of a doubt, what they depict by the researchers. In fact, of course, these descriptions often carry with them descriptors that are not “contained” in the images. In an experiment made in Britain following Allport’s line after the war, for instance, we are told that one slide is of “students throwing eggs” – which depends for its truth value on, among other things, describing the thrower as a student. But can true and false fama be so easily separated? Does distortion really mean untruth? Whose protocols are in play, here?

The second thing to notice about the Allport/Postman experiments is that they impose an identity on the group of subjects by giving them certain functions, in opposition to another group. Allport and Postman were not concerned with the function of rumor in maintaining the group so much as they were concerned with the transmission of rumor, which meant studying how a distortion generates a story pattern. A distortion like mistaking L.A. Bysow’s name, on the other hand, does not generate a story, although it occurs in the literature of rumor. Indeed, it would be petty to pick at it. However, we are again led to question the provenance of these assumptions. The atmosphere in which Allport and Postman worked reflected the war. As identity was imposed on the mass of draftees and volunteers in forces around the world as a topdown matter, the powers in place in armies and government bureaucracies became obsessed with information control – and thus, with fighting rumors. 

It is worth asking, then, whether rumors can be, among other things, attempts to wrest away that identity power by those upon whom it has been imposed. It is one of the surprises of literature it is shown such respect by the powers that be that they are continually trying to police rumor, or in other words, stories, narratives. The history of the policing of rumor shows a surprising sensitivity by those in power to the view of the ordinary outcasts and non-entities over whom they rule.

The mouchards of the Ancien Regime lead us, etymologically – that science that tracks the rumor of sound and sense behind the current word – to a sort of totemic animal who presides over the contagious rumor: the fly. According to an etymological dictionary of 1856 (Noel, Carpentier), the word mouchard “is not an old one in our language, [it] … derives from the word mouche [housefly], flies going out to search their food everywhere, changing places in the wink of an eye; and what appears to confirm this opinion is that one said and one says still moucher for spy, mouche for a spy. “It is useless, says M. Ch. Nodier, to search there (in the name of the father of Mouchy) this etymology, which presents itself naturally in musca, which had the same figurative acceptation in Latin, as one can see often in Plautus and in Petronius.” [374]

However, there is another story about the word in question here – for the housefly is not, according to Greenburg and Kunich, at the root of musca. Musca derives from the Sanskrit, mukshika, which describes something more like a gnat – the eye fly, musca sorbens, which feeds on secretions of the eye. The fly is shown in lists kept in Mesopotamia, and the gods are compared to flies when they gather around a sacrifice, or fly through the streets. In Lucian’s Praise of the Fly, the connection between the fly and gossip is made part of an origin story:

“Legend tells how Myia (the fly's ancient name) was once10 a maiden, exceeding fair, but over-given to talk and chatter and song, Selene's rival for the love of Endymion. When the young man slept, she was for ever waking him with her gossip and tunes and merriment, till he lost patience, and Selene in wrath turned her to what she now is. And therefore it is that she still, in memory of Endymion, grudges all sleepers their rest, and most of all the young and tender. Her very bite and blood-thirst tell not of savagery, but of love and human kindness; she is but enjoying mankind as she may, and sipping beauty.”
In Steve Connor’s Fly, there is a wealth of associations culled from literature and life – the life, for instance, that is recorded in the trials of witches - between the fly and devils. The fly as a familiar possesses a number of qualities – its metamorphosis from the worm, its feeding on excrement, its omnipresence as a camp follower of human habitations, its quickness, its flight, its prominent eyes, its buzz – that go into the notion of Fama as well. Oddly, Connor doesn’t touch on the subject of the spy as fly, perhaps because the spy in English is free from the fly’s taint that finds expression in  French. 
Rumor, the reporters of rumor, and the makers of rumor are three faces of the myth of what sociologist Shibutani calls “improvised news”. Shibutani proposed a quantitative model in which a certain demand for information is not met by “official channels”. Rumor, in this view, is a kind of overflow of the demand for news. Thus, Shibutani does not identify rumor with distortion, but instead, with an enduring will to truth – in as much as the demand for news is taken as a will to truth. But is it? Is the news about portraying the world? And does this realistic view of the  news work any better than realism in any of the arts?
The social time of rumor is, ideally, simultaneous.  Rumors connect those who spread them, and create among those who are “in the know“ a sense of the ‘latest’. Because rumors are primarily oral, however, their simultaneity is limited. Observers are surprised by it – surprised by how fast rumors spread. Partly this is because rumors fall on the side of the pre-industrial and the oral. In the early modern period and enlightenment, rumor coexisted with print as the literate coexisted with the illiterate, and as the ideology of progress coexisted with the dying gasps of the image of the limited good – the ideology of Nemesis, of the wheel of fortune. But this period, we can see, looking back, is premonitory of the industrial experience even if it is separate from it. One might say that symbolically, from the moment that Fontenelle noted the ingenuity of Paris’ artisans and Defoe noted the accounting methods of English traders, literature filled with intersignes and prophecies of the industrial future. The great novelists of the first half of the nineteenth century – Balzac, Stendhal, Dickens, Gogol, etc., are all unconsciously prophetic, for in the monumental spasms of negative capability they absorbed, in the experiences they diversely lived, the intersignes lying about, cast up to the surface of society by the great capitalist transformation at work underneath.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The T.E.

Shamefully, I’ve been in Paris now almost two years and I hadn’t paid my full respects to the Tour Eiffel. So A. and I went with our friend Miruna and her two children by metro to the Trocadero, and there I finally looked the thing in the eyes.

It is still surprising:  to be confronted with it in all of its gigantic intricacy, like experiencing some gloriously detailed and incomprehensible dream. The thing that strikes one most is its evident, its monstrous, its impossible uselessness. Nineteenth century architecture, whether of the railroad station or the factory, inclined towards wrapping massive ornament around some central utility – for use was the codeword of the century. Utilitarianism leveled the very planet to the question of use and exchange value, and conceived of human society globally as a vast cluster of users. We – living in the age of petrochemicals and entertainment – have followed in those footsteps, and simply added a horror movie dimension. But if one of those railroad stations or factories got up and kicked a jig, it would provoke the same kind of astonishment that the T.E. provokes – all that engineering, that crosshatching of intentionality writ large and in metal, those well laid stresses and balances, the netting, the internal busywork, to produce a thing like no other. Underneath the familiarity of it, the hundreds of millions of reproductions, there is still the fact that it adds itself to our vocabulary of things as itself alone – not as another skyscraper, or pyramid, or obelisk.

Donald Norman, in the Design of Everyday things, claims that the average person in America has a vocabulary of around 30,000 ‘readily descriminable objects’. He takes the end-user’s perception of the object to be determined by three design categories – affordances, mappings and constraints. Scissors, for example, present us with holes attached to blades, and the holes ‘call out to’ our fingers – they map onto our fingers – while the size and number of them operate as constraints, and the result of the mapping and constraint gives us an affordance – the aspect of use that separates the scissors from the butterknife, say.

The T.E., however, is beautifully alien: there are no holes to slip our fingers through here. We can go up it. We can go down it. And we can make use of it – we can send radio signals from it, we can make it into a tourist destination. But these are uses we cast over it, not uses that its structure calls for. We can domesticate it, but we can’t claim any native right over its heart.

So: down the steps and out of the Trocadero, and out to the Champs Mars, where we met some more friends and had a picnic. Afterwards, I went with the kids, Julien and Constanza, up to the second platform, leaving the adults below. I have the same view of high buildings as Jimmy Stewart has in Vertigo – which made this a bit of an ordeal. The kids clambered, jumped and in general pointed to things far below us, and I told myself that the stairs, guard rails and fences were not going to suddenly give way. The truth is that there is something also a little trippy about acrophobia. It is a hair’s breadth from being stoned. And it certainly helps you understand the menace that the massive steelwork represses. I knew that I would feel like this before I took the first step, but I also wanted to test myself. And I was right proud to be on the second platform. However, I would have to have very strong opiates administered to me before I’d even think of taking the elevator to the top. So, to Julien and Constanza’s disappointment, we did not go any higher.

High enough, though. You know, the gods don’t just demand respect – they desire that little token of fear. I gave it. Thus, the gods and I are even for one day. 

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...