Friday, March 04, 2005

Personal ubiquity

Uninformed opinion drowns out informed opinion and saves the powers that be the trouble of having to censor it. Soliciting uninformed opinion flatters individuals in their ignorance, and encourages them to remain ignorant, reinforcing the unievrsal natural tendency toward intellectual laziness and our hermetic self-centeredness. Developing informed opinions requires us to interact with the world, to decrease our isolation, to reduce our bliss, if that's what ignorance is. It is inconvenient (the gold standard of happiness to efficiency-minded capitalist citizens), but worst of all, it forces us to pay attention to others, which we tolerate less and less. Relentless media flattery, largely the flattery of simply being addressed, directed at us by ads and entertainment, has made us expect to always be paid attention to. So when USA Today has its nitwit surveys, for example, we relish in the attention, the abstract notion that our voice will be heard, that, in fact, it's being requested to speak. And if our uninformed opinion seems important and earns us attention, why bother with informed ones?

So suggests Thomas De Zengotita in this interview, which homes in on some of the same issues of know-nothing self-importance, on how the significance of having an opinion and voicing it has become far more important to us than making sure that opinion is informed and valid. (How one determines an opinion is valid is a thorny problem, too, but that shouldn't mean it should simply be ignored. Some opinions are not valid because there is no base of knlwledge behind them. For example, my opinions of who the best NASCAR driver is or which R. Kelly album will stand the test of time are not valid.) He argues that the tendency of media has been toward giving everyone the impression that all of culture is paying attention to them, an attention that's entirely unearned, and that a sense of entitlement has settled in wherein everyone expects to be catered to constantly. One consequence of this is a fascination with celebrities who don't earn their regard --- people like Ashlee Simpson and Paris Hilton, they are in fact "just like us" in that they have no particualr talents but are hounded continually by the media. We are similiarly hounded, just in a slightly different, more intimate way, with commercial messages telling us at virtually every moment of the day how important our choice of shaving cream, shampoo or "light" beer is. Their lack of talent makes it easy for us to imagine ourselves in their shoes. Being them is exactly the same as being our ordinary selves, except we'd have lots of money and more coverage. The same goes for reality show contestants. The constant media attention makes everyone believe they are already celebrities in a sense, which is they feel no shame being on humiliating reality TV show, and why we feel no embarrassment at watching them.

De Zengotita claims that little attention has been paid to the flattering nature of media, but that's not exactly the case -- Williamson's Decoding Advertisements is based entirely on the premise, which derives ultimately from Althusser's essay in Lenin and Philosophyabout what he calls Ideological State Apparatuses. Althusser argued that all of a society's institutions work to constitute a person as a subject -- to make them aware of themselves as individuals and thereby isolate them, to rule them in their isolation at the very level of self-consciousness they've enabled, to "interpellate" us into ideology. Institutions do this by constantly calling out to us, addressing us as the sort of subject they expect us to be. They project roles on to us that we adopt as our interiority, the contours of our personality. Foucault worked similar territory, painstakingly detailing how various cultural discourses (the way doctors, courts, mental health practictioners, sex therapists, scientists, etc.) define what it means to have a self.

De Zengotita argues that we've become aware of this process of being granted a self by our media culture, hyperconscious of it, and now the institutions are playing on that hyperconsciousness, make the subjection grow exponentially in intensity. Now our inordinate self-consciousness filters virtually everything that isn't aimed directly at us, that doesn't impact our sense of self-regard in some way. Burdened by the sense of our all-pervasive personal signifcance (but also pleased with our semi-divine ubiquity) we can spend very little energy on anything else but managing our self-presentation. We know everyone is always paying attention, so we know we always need to be monitoring how we come across. This is what Foucault imagined as perfect discipline in the pan-optic society.

De Zengotita implies that he sees "mediated" as a synonym for "being able to choose" or "wanting to choose." He's right that there's a massive demonstration effect to consumer choice, wherein social standards suddenly demand we stylize things that we're once devoid of signification potential. (Note the Target ad embedded into the copy.) But we don't "want" choice; choice is thrust upon us, and it's disorienting and upsetting. But disorientation is a profitable; it creates vulnerabilities for industry to exploit. The responsibility incumbent upon being implicated everywhere is extremely overwhelming. We respond by accepting the media's advice on how to solve a problem it has created. This is the fundamental dialectic of our culture.

In the interview, De Zengotita seems at pains to be optimistic about media culture, probably because he wants to sell books. (This is probably why he seems so cynical about liberalism, too). No one likes being told that the constant media attention has made him a moron. It's a shame, because when he does, he ends up approximating David Brooks's patently inauthentic and patronizing tone. If you are going to bother with cultural criticism, there's simply no point in being optimistic, or to try to avoid sounding like an elitist. If you are going to defend Dr. Phil, you may as well be Dr. Phil, and start doing the daytime talk-show circuit making people feel better about themselves for doing what the status quo expects from them and giving them advice that confirms their own "common sense" (which is ideology internalized). He almost takes the fatalist "end of ideology" view that global capitalism and its ideology (which the invasive, ever ingratiating media both exemplifies and spreads) have triumphed once and for all, and we should just be thankful for what good there is in it. Enjoy role-playing and self-centeredness; there's no going back, even if it makes most people depressed. So stock up on Paxil while you're at it.

1 comment:

  1. This morning I made my daily visit to Salon and immediately saw the De Zengotita and had to read it. As I did I thought "Wow, what would the marginal utility blogger think about this?" I come back after lunch and make my daily visit to marginal utility and ... you know the rest.

    Sort of an unnerving experience considering.