We Need a (Historian) Hero

Wallpaper Cave

Wallpaper Cave

When Indiana Jones emerged on the cultural landscape in 1981, he was both a very new and a very old kind of hero. The models George Lucas and Steven Spielberg took for Jones came from the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema, from movies like Stagecoach (1939), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and The Secret of the Incas (1954). As he searched for the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant, Jones also showed himself to be a latter-day Knight of the Round Table, exotic locales in North Africa, Asia, and South America standing in for the court of King Arthur. Clad in sweat-soiled khaki and battered fedora, Indy broke into the neon 1980s as a relic as mythical as the artifacts he sought. A historian-warrior, he defeated the Nazis, among other villains, championing truth, justice, and the American way. A figure from the past, he protected his own time against anti-democratic forces and used ancient magics to prevail, ensuring a glorious future at a time when the future really did seem glorious. By the end of the 1980s, the Berlin Wall would fall and Francis Fukuyama would claim that history had come to an end. Ronald Reagan had declared “morning in America,” and capitalism and democracy were ascendant.

In a certain sense, the history of the modern world has been a history of the end of history. Before Fukuyama, Hegel declared that history had realized its final purpose in the enlightened Prussian state, a notion that conveniently supported his own philosophy. From Hegel followed Feuerbach and Marx and a host of other theorists, politicians, generals, and economists who claimed to descry the final stage of human development. But what happens to the past, the Indiana Jones films seem to ask, if history has ended? Where does that leave characters such as Indy? The answer is clear: Once obsolete, history becomes a site of fantasy, a space of mythological possibility far removed from the rational, progressive present. Heroic figures generally embody much of what a society values and reveal much of what it fears. But when historians become heroes, this signification is intensified. Such historians don’t merely represent a society’s fears and values; they also reflect how those values are formed.

This new version of the historian as hero, I wish to argue, arises at a different end of history, in a methodological sense first suggested by Lytton Strachey. The Bloomsbury author and critic famously claimed that as the production of documents proliferated, it would become impossible to imagine that any historian could ever know the Victorian period the way one might know the Renaissance, for example. There was simply too much to read. Knowledge of history, from the Victorian era forward, must be partial, fragmented, and beset with anxiety. The contemporary pop-culture historian looks forward as well as back, and seeks more to protect history from the present than to protect us from incursions of history.

The trend seems to have begun with the television series Falling Skies (2011). Tom Mason (Noah Wylie) is a former professor of history who takes a leading role in repelling an alien invasion. Mason’s life as a professor is far behind him by the time the series begins, and his historical knowledge is introduced only in the form of affirmation. History provides hope, and Mason, always resisting insurmountable odds, relies on examples of successful guerrilla warfare to justify his intervention in history itself. But as Carl Abbott, a professor of urban history at Portland State University, has pointed out, this reliance on the historical anecdote, as opposed to historical research, cheapens the show’s relationship to history: “History professors onscreen function as purveyors of information. Despite their years of study honing sharp interpretive interventions, their contributions are usually textbook-level facts.”  Abbot is correct that Mason rarely reveals any actual scholarly insight or academic rigor. Still, these characters are very much engaged in the process of making history: As our complacent narratives of the inevitable spread of neoliberalism have been shattered, we find ourselves, collectively, grasping for stability and for structure, looking for some hero or heuristic capable of telling us how we got here, and where we are going.

Indiana Jones protected the present from ancient darkness. Tom Mason uses history to reestablish a world nearly destroyed by a futuristic threat. Other recent shows have also built on the premise of protagonists seeking to protect the past from attacks perpetrated in the present. In both Timeless (NBC, 2016–) and DC’S Legends of Tomorrow (The CW, 2016–), time-traveling villains are set on remaking the present to their own liking by changing a relatively unstable past. The heroes of each show travel to a different historical period each week in order to interrupt the bad guys from wreaking havoc with history.

The setup is also familiar from movies such as The Terminator (1984) and Timecop (1994). In both of those films, however, it is soldiers, rather than historians, who travel through time. Indeed, in the long history of pop-cultural fascination with time travel, everyone from teenage girls to astrophysicists has been sent into some distant past. Everyone, that is, except historians. Timeless, in contrast, takes a historian as its protagonist: When we first meet Lucy Preston (Abigail Spencer), she is lecturing on pivotal role of LBJ’s penis, nicknamed “Jumbo,” in the Vietnam War. But she is quickly recruited to serve the Department of Homeland Security. The time travelers here serve as ambassadors of progressive neoliberalism: The diverse crew faces its own temptations to rewrite history in order to remove past injustices, but they always come back to maintaining the integrity of the past—even if it means allowing events such as the assassination of Lincoln to take place.

Timeless depicts the historian as both protector and explorer. The characters in DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, on the other hand, both discover and create an increasingly complex universe as they move through time and space. Death is almost meaningless, as characters can be resurrected, travel to and from alternate universes, or even be brought from the past into the present. Every defeat that the Legends suffer, like all of their victories, is tentative.

These malleable realities are common in shows adapted from comic books where the idea of multiple realities was first introduced in the 1980s. As comic book fans have aged, sales have declined and comics publishers found themselves with a stable of characters in sore need of modernization. Loath to alienate loyal readers and viewers, DC came up with the idea of multiple universes as a way to attract new readers while keeping the interest of older fans. This narrative innovation provided, well, the best of both worlds. For example, The Flash, a product of the 1950s atomic age, could also be easily at home in the glitz and glam of the 1980s. At the same time, the decision to introduce multiple universes led to the emergence of a kind of radical postmodernity in comic books. Artists and writers could essentially reimagine characters and surroundings without regard to traditional laws of storytelling or even physics. DC’s world eventually became so complex that its characters experienced their own version of the Big Bang, a comic book cataclysm that resulted in two universes, one with positive matter and one with antimatter.

DC’s decision to protect its intellectual property by changing the rules of physics gives the lie to Fukuyama’s theory of history: Capitalism may seem, for a moment, to be triumphant. The enthusiasm that greets the arrival of the latest smartphone allows us to believe, for a minute at least, that this new device is the apex, the best technology has to offer. But an economic system that remains vital through constant growth also generates the risk of constant crises. Capitalism often relegates these crises to the realm of fashion, which, as Georg Simmel once remarked, is distinguished from history in that it is driven by changes that are fundamentally meaningless. Whether we prefer our denim raw or acid-washed now has no impact on what we will prefer next, except that it be something different. The preconditions for a capitalist end of history are different from those of the Marxist or Hegelian variations. Both of the latter imagine humankind at rest, satisfied with what it has and content to remain where it is. A capitalist end to history, in contrast, can only be sustained by emptying history of meaning.

It is this process of emptying history of meaning that has produced pop-cultural historians who aim to protect history from the present, rather than the present from history. As fantastic as these historians and their fictional realms are, there is something familiar about the problems they address. Our own personal histories are now documented and distributed with a thoroughness and rapidity that we would never have thought possible. Facts (alternative and not) reach us with startling speed and regularity. But whether all of this data ever amounts to anything more than fashion, meaningless shifts in affect and style, seems still to be an open question. If we define information, with Gregory Bateson, as a “difference that makes a difference,” it would seem that the information age is anything but—we live in the age of democratized fashion reporting, not information.

Like in DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, we claim victories or suffer defeats, only to learn that attention has shifted elsewhere, and that the multiple universe narratives purveyed by social media are too complex and too profit-driven ever to be stable. It’s hard to celebrate progressive victories when we are beset by the sinking feeling that the sphere of our meaningful activity is limited to the realm of commerce with its ever-present atmosphere of risk and crisis. Once, we dreamed, as with shows like Timeless and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, of a future of advanced technology and global peace. Now our hope is in the past, which, under the strange logics of late capitalism, suddenly seems more malleable than the future. No wonder the historian has become a hero.

Peter Kuras lives in Berlin.

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The Crisis in the Climate Change Crisis

Paul VanDerWerf via Flickr.

Paul VanDerWerf via Flickr.

On Earth Day, tens of thousands of protestors gathered in Washington DC and elsewhere to draw attention not only to the crisis of climate change and other forms of environmental emergency but also to defend scientific reasoning in public policy. That this was but one of numerous large protest gatherings this year about a variety of issues, ranging from immigration to gender equity to health care, might leave supporters and skeptics asking, is climate change really “a crisis”? Everywhere we look there are crises today, leading to proliferating calls to mobilize specific domains as existential dangers. Why focus on this one now?

On the one hand, the answer is obvious: The Trump administration has made it matter of principle to oppose or otherwise undermine efforts to address climate change and undercut both environmental science and regulatory agencies. Stopping the administration’s agenda is politically urgent.

Yet, the bigger issue here predates Trump. Climate change is a particular kind of crisis, and one that has come to the fore in a cultural context where “crises” are ubiquitous. The predicament points to what might be thought of as the crisis of “crisis. “Crisis” itself is in crisis, such that both the structure and urgency of the crisis of climate change could elude us. Continue reading

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Politics Is Downstream from Culture, Part 2:
“Cultural Marxism,” or, from Hegel to Obama

88622867_fortune cookie NARRATIVE pt2 FLAT

It was widely reported last month that Andrew Breitbart’s protegé Steve Bannon had said at the Conservative Political Action Conference that his goal was the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” The phrasing caused humanities professors and journalists alike to do a double take. Matthew Yglesias wrote at Vox, “[Bannon] presumably meant that he wants to destroy the administrative state, not apply literary theory inspired by Jacques Derrida to it.”

Or did he? What if Breitbart’s media empire, which grew from the slogan “politics is downstream from culture” (see Part 1), was based precisely on ideas that come from the lexicon of critical theory, literary theory, and media theory? That would go a long way toward explaining why the White House is flatly denying that it colluded not just with Russians but also with Internet trolls, those denizens of viral content-production.

Bannon’s right hand is Julia Hahn, a University of Chicago graduate who wrote her senior thesis on “issues at the intersection of psychoanalysis and post-Foucauldian philosophical inquiry,” influenced by poststructuralist queer theorist Leo Bersani. After decades of the far right attacking academia both institutionally and symbolically, it’s hard for us to imagine Bannon doing more than sneering at “the Cathedral” or “the Complex” (cartoonish alt-right names for the left-wing conspiracy that supposedly extends from Ivy League ivory towers to Hollywood). But Hahn isn’t Bannon’s only source for literary theory. The other is none other than his mentor Andrew Breitbart, who devoted a chapter of his 2011 book Righteous Indignation to “cultural Marxism.” Continue reading

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The New Russian Revolution Will Not Be Televised

The Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny marches on Tverskaya street. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny marches on Tverskaya street. Via Wikimedia Commons.

March 26 was the seventeenth anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s election to the Presidency of Russia. The day did not turn out as Putin had probably hoped. In over ninety cities across Russia, tens of thousands of people protested against the corruption of top government officials. They had been galvanized by a YouTube video depicting Dmitri Medvedev, Putin’s prime minister and the head of the United Russia party, as a corrupt apparatchik enjoying a lavish lifestyle of a billionaire while the rest of the country continued to slide into poverty.

Produced and narrated by Alexei Navalny, an iconic opposition figure who has made a career of researching and publicizing the pervasive corruption of Putin’s regime, the film is a masterful exposé. It combines expert sleuthing, striking visuals, and a good dose of humor to present Medvedev as both a criminal who hides his enormous assets in a network of fake non-profits and a hypocrite who tells impoverished old people, “There is no money. Hang in there.”

Corruption is hardly news in Russia, where offering a bribe to a traffic cop or a low-level bureaucrat is a daily occurrence. So why did Navalny’s video and his call for Russian citizens to take to the streets resonate so much? Moreover, why were so many of the protesters young? And, finally, how much can this protest mean as a political spectacle, given its (non)-coverage by Russian mainstream media? Continue reading

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It’s Not the “Deep State.” It’s the State.

The truth is out there? X-Files cosplay image via Wikimedia Commons,

The truth is out there? X-Files cosplay image via Wikimedia Commons.

Earlier this month, Rep. Mike Kelly, a Republican from Pennsylvania, got in on the latest pro-Trump talking point, telling a gathering of Republicans at a Lincoln Day dinner:

President Obama himself said he was going to stay in Washington until his daughter graduated. I think we ought to pitch in to let him go someplace else, because he is only there for one purpose and one purpose only, and that is to run a shadow government that is going to totally upset the new agenda.

The idea that a “shadow government” or “deep state” has been actively resisting Trump since the president’s inauguration has been widely circulated on right and alt-right media channels. Last week, Rush Limbaugh published an article indiscreetly titled, “Barack Obama and His Deep State Operatives are Attempting to Sabotage the Duly Elected President of the United States.” Meanwhile, Sean Hannity took to the airwaves to argue that the Russian hacking of the DNC was actually the work of American intelligence agencies seeking to undermine Trump. And I’d best not mention Breitbart News on the matter.

Thankfully, the notion that that the “deep state” is responsible for the Trump administration’s bumbling, stumbling first couple months in office has been panned by pundits on the left and the right. The New Yorker’s David Remnick wrote last week, “The problem in Washington is not a Deep State; the problem is a shallow man—an untruthful, vain, vindictive, alarmingly erratic President.” Similarly, Kevin Williamson writes in the National Review that “it isn’t the “Deep State” that is making President Donald Trump look like an amateur. It is amateurism.”

But if reports are true that Trump, Bannon, and other members of the White House inner ring are feeling frustrated and blaming it on the “deep state,” maybe we should ask why. Clearly, they feel like they are bumping up against something big. Just because they may be mistaking it for the “deep state” (let alone an Obama-run deep state), does not mean that they are not in fact facing some real big resistance: the state itself, that vast network of bureaucracies, rules, regulations, institutions, and cultures that comprise the United States government. Continue reading

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Politics is Downstream from Culture, Part 1: Right Turn to Narrative

88622867_fortune cookie NARRATIVE_FLAT_100dpi

Our lives—indeed, our very species—has storytelling wound into our DNA. From the earliest cave drawings, man has expressed himself in terms of story. Ancient civilizations understood that stories are vital to understanding our place in the world, so much so that they codified storytelling and found base rules that form it. Oral histories are a part of every culture across the globe.

I’ll give you three guesses as to the author of this statement. In fact, I’ll give you thirty. It’s not Bill Moyers, and it’s not James Cameron, and it’s not some literature professor. It’s from Breitbart News. If you’re a member of the professional (or non-professional) humanities, that should get you to more than guessing.

The quote, by Lawrence Meyers, appeared in a 2011 article headlined “Politics is Really Downstream from Culture.” It was an elaboration of Andrew Breitbart’s mantra, “politics is downstream from culture.” The slogan—a nice inverse of James Carville’s “It’s the economy, stupid!”—means what it says: Change the culture, change the government.

Now, six years later, national politics, we might say, is culture, and maybe even only culture. Steve Bannon, Breitbart’s successor, is not only in the White House, but, for the time being at least, enjoys a front-row seat on the National Security Council. John McCain, concerned about the elevation of a civilian political strategist to chief advisor on foreign affairs, has called Bannon’s NSC role  a “radical departure from any National Security Council in history.”  But the concern should run deeper than the possibility of war becoming but another mode of dirty politics. It should include Bannon making international relations into little more than a good story. This sense of story, as something that captures the attention, immerses the reader or viewer, and manufactures a desired political attitude, is Bannon’s stock-in-trade. He’s explicit about his sources for his narrative techniques: “the Left,” conceived on a spectrum from Hollywood filmmakers to Lenin (whom Bannon has said he idolizes, with tongue pretty clearly in cheek). 

Since he left Goldman Sachs in 1990, Bannon has been first and foremost a worker in the culture industry, a producer of stories. After helping negotiate the sale of Castle Rock Entertainment to Ted Turner, Bannon gained a stake in television shows like Seinfeld. He then got into his own brand of filmmaking, producing among other works, a hagiography of Ronald Reagan, a celebration of Sarah Palin, an encomium to Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson, and a self-explanatory exposé, “Occupy Unmasked.” After Andrew Breitbart died suddenly in 2012, Bannon took over Breitbart News and single-handedly retrofitted the fringiest part of the “Right Wing Conspiracy” into a slick, savvy, and at least partly fact-based operation. (At the same time, Bannon helped found the investigative research organization that produced Clinton Cash, the book that undermined the Democratic nominee long before anyone from Vermont got involved.)

In addition to left-leaning pop culture sources, Bannon has also borrowed techniques from the academic left, specifically from the Humanities. That’s why it’s now possible to find quotes like the one I led off with above, where it’s hard to tell if we’re reading literary theory or an article on Breitbart Continue reading

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Empire’s Regrets

The Pentagon (2008). Via Wikimedia Commons.

The Pentagon (2008). Via Wikimedia Commons.

There was a time, not that long ago, when America’s “business” sensibilities were seen as both the economic and ethical boon of American empire. George F. Kennan, one of the chief architects of the cold war American empire, saw in “the reputation of Americans for businesslike efficiency, sincerity and straightforwardness” a singular advantage in America’s effort to establish and maintain its global power. (I am quoting from Kennan’s notes for his Memoirs, archived at Princeton.) Indeed, for nearly all of the cold war architects of American empire, the “business” personality meant reliability, responsibility, power, and stability.

This personality is also the kind needed to build an empire. Empires want stability. Power is not enough. The Pax Romana of the ancient world was not an accident of the centralization of power in the emperor. It was its purpose and its justification. By the time of Octavian’s ascent to imperial rule as Augustus in 27 BCE, the Roman Republic, though esteemed then and now for its renowned constitution, had been in upheaval for well near a century, fraught with plots, assassinations, power plays, coups, and civil war. The emperor meant the empire could stabilize.

The American empire of the postwar and cold war periods was frequently characterized as a reluctant one. This was part of its “businesslike” ethic. Certainly, America’s ascent to world power after World War II was not intended to be a replication of the British colonial empire. It was to be more subtle, and, if possible, more invisible in its workings. It was not to be “colonial” in the way of nineteenth-century empires or America’s own past approach to its indigenous peoples. Rather, it was to work through a kind of triumvirate of distributed American military power, America-led financial institutions, and strategic alliances. This is, and was, American empire. And like all empires, it wants, on the whole, stability.

Within the empire of postwar and cold war America, technology was to be a means of order, or ordering. During the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, technology and technological innovation were inseparable from the empire: Big science, big industry, and a very big military-industrial complex drove technological innovation. There is no other way to make sense of the remarkable technological developments of the period—computers, the internet, satellites, missiles, and thermonuclear warheads—than in terms of the overwhelming imperative of the empire to enforce order onto the world, just as there was no other way to account for the empire’s penchant to perceive threats to order everywhere, from Laos to Guatemala to the Arctic.

But this “businesslike” empire was also an empire of capital, and of capitalism, both ideologically (as America confronted communism) and structurally (as private capital and public funding worked together to uphold empire). And capitalism is disruptive. As Americans learned in the 1930s, it was prone to destruction and reconstruction, ups and downs, booms and busts. If empire wants stability, capitalism favors instability.

From the mid-1940s until the early 1970s, American domestic and foreign policy was aimed at making both empire and capitalism work by having them work together. If Keynesianism was the logic, a “businesslike” approach to technological innovation was the lynchpin. A primary way the American empire harnessed capitalism was by harnessing science, technology, and industry—the sources of “innovation.” Bell Labs, IBM, Westinghouse, General Motors: Big Industry meant not only working-class jobs but the cooperation between capital and empire. This cooperation was crucial to empire’s power, for it meant capitalism’s disruptive logics could be tempered by empire’s need for order.

But as things turned out, capitalists began to undermine the cooperative logic of the empire. In the age of Reagan, a new kind of capitalism and a new kind of capitalist emerged under the auspices of innovation and deregulation. Entrepreneurial capitalism began to exploit the stable networks of capital, communications, and human movement the empire offered. If neoliberalism was the new logic, technology was the motor, including new techniques and technologies of finance capital. Finance, computers, the internet, automation, and a new Silicon Valley ethic of creative, disruptive innovation emerged as insurgents within the empire. And “business” took on a new, distinctly disruptive look, too.

The entrepreneurial insurgents of the 1980s and 90s created new markets, even as they destroyed old ones, especially labor markets. Tech and finance industries took new risks, risks freed of empire’s insistence on stability. These risks were money motivated, but they were also social, ambitiously aimed at reshaping the way humans live their lives (for the tech industry the “human” is always the subject, and for the finance industry humans are always objects).

And on the backs of these insurgents rode yet another kind of capitalist, the postmodern capitalist convinced that brand is value, image is economy, and money but a manipulable bit. Retail, development, entertainment, and service industries made brand identity a franchise industry, all the while using fraud, bankruptcy, lobbying, and the exploitation of legal and tax loopholes to create value, or perceived value.

Remarkably, given empire’s need for stability, these entrepreneurial and postmodern forms of capitalism became not only an economic ethic but a political one, as if the solution to every problem were to shake things up. We saw this, above all, in the penchant for deregulation in the 80s and 90s. But we also saw it in the mythologies that developed around Silicon Valley, innovation, and technology, and around what Donald Trump would brand “the art of the deal.” Still, from Reagan to the present, every presidential administration has tried to have it both ways, making room for capitalism’s disruptions while maintaining hold of a relatively stable American empire.

Now, the balance has shifted: The postmodern anarcho-capitalist, seen in the likes of Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and Peter Thiel, is now vying for the reigns of the empire. This personality seeks to reorganize geopolitical power around the most elusive of categories—spirit, culture, and identity—while trying to create maximum space for the disruptions of capitalistic innovation. “Strength” and “weakness,” understood in quasi-romantic terms of spirit and culture, are supposed to organize the values of this would-be world power (which, because it eschews stability, would not be an empire), and state violence is to be used as a technique of purification (thus the ubiquity of “war” in the rhetoric of these anarcho-capitalists, a striking point of commonality with their surprise allies, conservative culture warriors). On the other hand, the old empire is striking back in the personalities of the new secretary of defense, James Mattis, and the new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, both of whom seem to represent a vision of empire in which capital cooperates in exchange for relative world stability and in which “strength” is measured less in cultural and spiritual terms and more in terms of diplomatic alliances, military might, and economic hegemony.

Which vision will prevail is still unclear, but the current condition of uncertainty might partly explain the box-office success of Split, a horror film about a man suffering from multiple personality disorder. One might describe it as a parable for an empire in crises, in which we viewers are the kidnapped hostages.

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Silicon Valley’s Survivalists

Bunker 318, Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, Maynard Massachusetts. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Bunker 318, Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, Maynard Massachusetts. Wikimedia Commons.

Seventeen years ago, just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, my wife’s grandfather built floor-to-ceiling shelves in his basement and filled them with toilet paper, tuna, Twinkies, and batteries. He was prepping for Y2K, the Millennium bug. Boom Boom, my wife’s normally calm and reasonable grandfather, was convinced that computer programmers had set civilization up for collapse by representing the four-digit year with only the final two digits. Once the digital clocks and computers tried to register the year 2000, electric grids and so all things electronic would crash. Civilization wouldn’t be too far behind. My father, in the foothills of western North Carolina, didn’t stock his shelves. But he did load his shotgun.

Today, prepping isn’t just for old southern white guys. The tech titans of Silicon Valley, as Evan Osnos recently wrote in the New Yorker, are buying bunkers and waiting for the breakdown of society as well. But Silicon Valley’s survivalists are different from Boom Boom and my dad. They are preparing for a civilizational collapse they otherwise celebrate as disruption and innovation. Continue reading

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Irony Goes to Washington

Woodcut showing Cicero writing his letters. Wikimedia Commons.

Woodcut showing Cicero writing his letters. Wikimedia Commons.

A curious thing happened on the way to the Trump presidency. Cicero—the ancient Roman Stoic and teacher of rhetoric—started appearing in the media. Slate, CNN, and the Washington Post suggest that Trump’s sometimes incoherent speech is actually drawing on hallowed techniques of political oratory. Ancient rhetoricians didn’t just analyze speech; they taught ambitious young men how to use it to gain power with verbal tricks, such as saying you won’t say something as a way of intimating it. (Remember the first debate?) That’s called “praeteritio.” But hyperbole is also a technique. And so is intentionally contradicting yourself, which is called irony.

These articles about Trump’s Ciceronian speech are part of a debate about how intentional his speech actually is. Is he a master of rhetoric—especially on his preferred medium, Twitter—or simply lacking attention span, firing off tweets on conflicting whims? Continue reading

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Infernal Machine Collective Manifesto: On the Occasion of the Inauguration

An empty podium at the U.S. Embassy in London. U.S. Embassy London via Flickr.

An empty podium at the U.S. Embassy in London. U.S. Embassy London via Flickr.

We—let us reclaim the We, the declaratory We, the contentious We, the collective We. On this inaugural day, as the seas rise, the drones fly, the tweets storm, and a reality TV star ascends to the heights of world power, the Infernal Machine returns.  Just as all that is solid is melting into air and all that is sacred is profaned (yet again but differently), we want to face the real conditions of our life together, again.

And these conditions are new: Our politics, our institutions, our reality have been eroded by a techno-enabled cynicism and a vociferous optimism peddled from Silicon Valley to Washington, DC. Our media channels,  often filled with noisy disinformation, have come close to overwhelming all hope for truth and a common good. Technology has become both a demon and a god, oppressor and savior, post-human and super-human.

Less than a year ago, many of us were decrying technocracy and neoliberal automation—the routinization of decisions by distant experts. And now? We have been compelled, by the Twitter-assisted success of the newly inaugurated president, to defend expertise, even as we know that it is not enough. But a few moons ago, we were skeptics when it came to data, statistics, and polls. Now social science, not to mention science, is under attack by those who believe that “to tweet it is to prove it.” A year ago we thought that the great showdown of the decade would be between the state and Silicon Valley. Now we see their collusion, willed or not.

So we are at our own inauguration point, our own auspicious beginning, full of omens.

During the age of high technology—think mid-twentieth-century broadcast media and rust-belt production lines—entropy, the erosion of order, represented the great problem of the age. “Information = entropy” became the rallying cry of a new coterie of scientists, engineers, and poets, the basis for a celebration of new media channels for a potentially limitless proliferation of communication.

And then the science fiction of that earlier pretense turned cyberpunk; the Internet promised freedom and gave us something more complex. And with the production of unprecedented quantities of digital data, the virtual world got Big. The prospect of our own technological age is now tipping points and system failures that threaten sudden catastrophe. Experts, yes, but what happens when a politics far outside the boundaries of the Old Media and the Old Discourse—including what threatens to become Old Democracy—emerges?

During the age of high technology, media could be left to their own. Signals, senders, receivers, and noise constituted an engineering schema that could be bought, regulated, and directed by the relatively few for advertising to, informing, and entertaining the many. The media was both an institution and a fantasy of power: a towering professional enclave that sent signals to the receivers of a polis of citizens, couch potatoes, airport-bound travelers, and runners on treadmills.

But today “the media” has no towering centers: Media are on wrists, our hearts,  our streets, and in space. The center of media production is no longer New York, Hollywood, or the editorial room at the local newspaper, but Facebook and would-be Facebooks (Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit, and so on).  But these new media types don’t edit. Their only norm is unregulated use for the sake of unlimited profit. And so a form of parallel meme-processing is the underbelly of what once was decried as “merely the news” by thinkers from Nietzsche to Neil Postman.

During the age of high technology the academic study of media developed its own high towers and professional enclaves: communications; radio, film, and television; cinema.  It also included courses from journalism, speech communication, economics, business, and literature. Each operated on its own frequency. Technology studies, meanwhile, built an edifice (rather plain and drab at first, until a Gothic renovation by a Frenchman, Bruno Latour, with a penchant for networks, actants, and jokes). If the age of high technology yielded a change in the categories, such that agency was distributed and binaries upended (a “general cyborg condition,” as Donna Haraway put it), then what does the fast-advancing Digital Era call for? What philosophy will grasp this history?

A chorus on the Left decries the “fading of fact,” as though we had not attached media and rhetoric to the disappearance of fact for half a century—or since Plato. How can our self-proclaimed sophisticates have failed to see this continent of intellectual energy emerging outside their media, yet on the platforms those media share? How can those trained to think of Enlightenment as having the darkest of sides, a necessary backlash in its very heart, be so naively surprised by this predictable development?

And, so, on this inauguration day, we dedicate this platform to finding those positions, to develop the techniques, to find the pressure-points in our media and rhetoric to make sense of our new conditions, technological and political, and to articulate commonalities and goals.

It’s therefore time we collect and meet in a common, contested, conflicted, complex field that we variously call research, criticism,  scholarship, philosophy, or science. Let us inaugurate a collective, a collective that might form a community, but that cannot and should not be an academic “discipline,” inasmuch as it is academic but undisciplined thinking that we need.

It’s time to collect, and to be collected. Let us be philosophical, whimsical, constructive, critical, and confused. But let us collect, and be collected. Let us write proverbs, poetry, commentary, essays, explorations, and maybe even code. But let us collect, and be collected.  Let us listen, learn, make notes, draw connections, and consider diagrams. But let us collect, and be collected, with ecumenical means in search of effective voice.

We—this “We,” too, is a complex field—invite a world of scholars, computer scientists, thinkers, programmers, poets, and priests to join us. This platform is a position, but a position that will change through collection and collation. We will make a database and channel of what is to be done. And that must remain an open question, our question, for as long as we have energy and affordance to answer to it.

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