Cosmos Café: Stare into the lights my pretties—a talk with filmmaker Jordan Brown [2/20]
On-point review, I think. Of course it would take several days of film to begin to do justice to “the last 40 years of our civilization’s slide into metacrisis and narrative collapse” but even if all his dots are not quite as connected as he suggests I certainly won’t fault Curtis for what I took to be a rather integral look at the problem! I hang out with the likes of Oswald Spengler for much the same reason, not because everything he writes reflects the rigor of the historical research of his day but because I have yet to be shown where his key insights can be as easily dismissed as some of his critics would have us believe.
So… I liked the film, and rather than try to make a polished mini-essay of this post, I will just throw out some thoughts I had:
- It is representative democracy that is collapsing, not the exercise of political power, which abhors a vacuum no matter the system or time in history. One wonders how much of a farce the notion of “popular sovereignty” is and ever was, however much “we the sheeple” may have contributed…
- I am reminded that tools are neutral. More than one vision (whether dream or nightmare) went into the creation of the Internet, and none have come to pass exclusive of influence from the others. But, tied to point 1, note how the well-placed are (by definition) able to reap the greatest “rewards” in a world where information is a source of wealth and power.
- A solution to this Hydra is not going to be in any way easy and the commitment of our financial and political institutions to its survival does not bode well for the future. I don’t think we lack alternative visions or agendas; it’s the extreme difficulty of pulling off a true revolution of thought (not simply a “social crisis” revolution that ends, as history shows, with more concentrations of power rather than decentralized creativity) that baffles the mind. (This mind, at least… LOL)
Marco, marco marco. I actually watched the whole thing and took notes. What a disjointed mess. Art? Yes. And, a lot of work went into this; but worth anyone’s time? No. Briefly: There are proximate causes, and ultimate causes, and to try and weave together a story that explains events w/o taking into account that, is, well, art. As art, was this worth my time & attention? No. As non-art was this worth my time & attention? Definitely No! The author was/is, obviously, trying to capitalize (= monetize) on the Trump phenomena, or maybe he’s just curious, and like curious personalities - uses art to look for explanation. Ok, fine. But like you said - there is no conclusion, or/and: Then what happens? There’s just threads, or rocks, floating around in space. Errg. At best - validation for chaos theory.
I’ve been binging on Curtis this week. Just watched Century of the Self and have started The Trap. My wife and girls are out of town for the week, so I’m able to indulge in this material on the big TV.
Seems to me there’s something necessarily disjointed about these films (though HyperNormalization especially so), since they are about disjuncture. How can you tell a story where everything connects nicely, where the subject is the cognitive dissonance of modern life?
It’s interesting, in Century of the Self, Curtis ties the collapse of representational democracy, as I think you put it well, @patanswer, to the rise of modern advertising and propaganda, which he attributes (proximate cause) especially to the influence of one Edward Bernays, father of modern public relations, who also happened to be Sigmund Freud’s nephew. Fascinating story—and a more orderly presentation, too—about how psychoanalysis, combined with modern media, has been used for mass control by cultivating the notion of the unique self and playing strictly to its fears and desires.
You recommended the book to me, Mr. @Mark_Jabbour, The Culture of Narcissism, by Christopher Lasch. I’ve only thumbed through it, but I would think you’d find a lot to agree with in Curtis’ argument if you’re sympathetic to Lasch’s. Nevermind its artistic merit.
What I’m getting so far is that if you look at Curtis’ various movies, it’s a melange of psychoanalysis, game theory, computer networking, and virtualization that is being used (by competing corporations and governments) to manipulate populations by useful illusions and sheer mindfuckery. This is not news, obviously, but I think what’s interesting is the genealogy of the ideas and techniques in play, which Curtis teases out in his way.
But his point is, as I understand it, that if you believe that the world is will to power and human beings are mostly unconscious drives, then democracy, in your world, is not really possible. In his films, Curtis examines the consequences of this belief.
I’d concur with this point:
But Mark, I think your attitude is, if you can’t beat em, join em, right? What are the ultimate causes?
Me too, w/r/t Curtis. Spent yesterday AM reading articles & interviews. Briefly (as I’m on my phone) yes, he & Lasch are very close. Lasch not so disjointed. A more coherent argument; bit they are using different mediums. And 40 years apart. Let me get to my computer…
So i began by taking notes (watching Hyper); and halfway through stopped & started drinking - figuring - might as well just watch it as entertainment as it makes no sense. I love the idea of trying to weave everything together (not unlike that short film you put together, Marco, on Trump, which I didn’t get either, but thought it was well done - better than Curtis’; btw.) What Lasch did was go way back in history for the “ultimate” cause, and then also offer a remedy to “The culture of narcissism” or “self expression” as Curtis calls it. Lasch points to industrialization and the father leaving the home space to work, and so his authoritarian (“because I said so”) authority was missing in the child’s (and mother/wife’s) development, which lead to the child being stuck in the narcissistic stage of development (= The world revolves around me.) This then was exploited by mass media (TV) and the MadMen and so on and so forth. One difference btwn the two is Lasch doesn’t think it was a conspricy, it just unfolded that way - as to your point of a “will to power.” It’s deterministic in that regard, a kind of “reciprocal determinism” (I call it.) DFW called it “permutations of complications.” i.e. it’s just too damn hard to figure the whole thing out. So yeah, to your point - fuck it. Lasch, on the other hand suggests a return to “localism”; Tribalism, if you will, where authority was authoritarian and was practical for the group/tribe survival, or non-democratic but practical. It’s the Protestant work ethic revisited (= put your head down, do your job, suck it up - and everyone, the Tribe, benefits, b/c you’re a tough son-of-a-bitch = a self-reliant, strong man. Which contrasts with the “me generation” where it’s all about how you feel and “self expression” (eg. the facebook, selfie, free-to-be-me) world we seem to have “evolved” into. Maybe I’ll watch Century today (instead of porn.) Book i’m reading now ties in, Earning the Rockies. A sort of Feng Shui way of seeing America’s rise to power, which I’m also into w/r/t the Gestalt of “things.” And then there’s_my latest work_ #Election2016: The Great Divide.
So I watched Century yesterday, all 4 hrs. I think it’s an important conversation - but an unpopular one - why people do what they do. Curtis starts with Freud, again, the basic premise which is: people don’t know why they do what they do. In his dis-jointed way, Curtis moves back & forth from Freud, WWII, the CIA, mind control, focus groups, business, & politics, with the conclusion that politicians & big business have joined forces into deceiving people (who are chumps) into believing that they matter, as individuals, & are free actors; when in reality they are being duped and used/exploited/manipulated, by the people in power (politicians & big business) so that they, the power people, can become rich and/or famous. It’s hard to disagree. Freud’s position, as put forth by Curtis, is that people are, at their core, brutish animals who must repress, unconsciously (versus suppress, which is conscious) their instinctual drives to rape and kill via civilization (civilization is the force that allows for people to live together w/o raping and killing); and therefore are doomed to unhappiness as they, people, are so conflicted, inside and out. The folks in power, via US military experiments, sort of figured this out and colluded with business and forged a partnership to take advantage of people’s repressed desires to make them “feel” important and powerful.
Nobody wants to hear they’re stupid rubes. Down with Freud. Down with politicians, except for my guy, up with things that make me feel good about myself. And so here we are - ensconced within a “culture of narcissism” or “me generation” or “generation of sociopaths”; fueled by “identity politics” (blame the “other.”) And consumerism.
What a mess. Truth? Forget that. Curtis, in Hyper, leaves us with the idea that we’re living in a parallel world, a “make believe” world. I disagree - it’s real. This conversation definitely could be infinite. I know people who did the EST thing, bought into that whole thing, and man does it have consequences. NOT GOOD! Culture of narcissism? Yep. “Cult of friendliness”? Yep. Manipulation? Yep. Free will? Debatable. Choice? Debatable.
Lots of food for thought on the table. Love it!
“…if you believe that the world is will to power and human beings are mostly unconscious drives, then democracy, in your world, is not really possible.” (Curtis through madrush)
I see where the argument can be made that size rather than conspiracy is the true enemy of democracy in the long run. The essence of democracy is collective agreement to abide by the majority vote. The premise, ideally, is the voters get to discuss their options and come to a consensus. Of course direct participation is impractical for a large group. (Does Dunbar’s number figure in here?) Enter the representative - and now the ‘interests of the voter’ is already an abstraction or well on the road to it. Then expand the state: in 1789 (IIRC) the US Congressman stood for 30,000 voters, today s/he stands for upwards of half a million (give or take?). And so on. Clearly, there is much room for the concerns at the level of the national government to diverge from those of the voter, who has become an “average” rather than a person. Looked at this way, does it even matter whether or not human drives are conscious? All this before we come to the corrupting influences that creep into - if not innate to - the exercise of power.
“…a return to ‘localism’; Tribalism, if you will, where authority was authoritarian and was practical for the group/tribe survival, or non-democratic but practical.” (Lasch through Mark Jabbour)
And then again the small group does not necessarily have to be organized in democratic fashion either, especially in matters of life and death which trump the luxury of open debate.
So it appears democracy is possible, but probably based on a whole lot of “granted” conditions which are time-stamped.
One of the observations made by Curtis in HyperNormalisation is that politics has become more about the art of keeping things stable rather than about direction and leadership. Historically, that is what imperial rule does…
(I’ll have to watch Century of the Self now to keep up, I guess. Having pulled the trigger today on the Sloterdijk trilogy, I foresee a few months of not having time to get into trouble. )
I want to keep this conversation going, but I feel a bit stuck…like I’m under some fatalistic cloud.
I can’t argue much with your summary and analysis, @Mark_Jabbour, of both the film and the predicament—“permutations of complications” &c. (“Reciprocal determinism” ain’t bad, either.)
I just wonder, let’s say you see this disjointed gestalt in all its guts and glory. Then what? What do you do next?
Make a film about it…write a novel?
Crack open a beer, light up?
Pop the popcorn? Burn baby burn?!
Go out and save the world? Save your own ass?
Which is the path of wisdom? Or is wisdom just another of the self’s conceits?
(The two N’s of Nihilism and Narcissism coil together like twin serpents.)
I suspect we will not figure out democracy, at any scale, until we master the dark magic of the self. I mean “we” as in human beings in general, but also in groups and individually. We have to break the various “spells.” We need counter-spells.
And though I hesitate to say this, I’ll just put it out, because I don’t know how else to respond to Curtis at the moment: I think enlightenment (in its multiple senses) is still the only game in town worth playing.
How can I do anything but laugh? & love your honesty? There is no “right.” But, admit it, Freud was right … . Back to the “Loneliest Road” … and but so - who gets it? You - sort of, Me - sot of.
So I just finished Robert D. Kaplan’s Earning the Rockies and I’m conflicted. He’s got a point ( as does every/any-one who can put together an argument); and yet, but, does it/he offer a solution? No. Given that - what comes next? Kaplan admits (pg. 168) being wrong w/r/t the Iraq War. And so why should you or I give credence to what he says? And he is an “authority.” Well paid. And so, I ask you, what do you see?
Hmm… Nihilism as 0 and Narcissism as 1 - the binary code of the postmodern world…
I think that @patanswer is right^^ and scale is a big part of the problem. We lives our lives and work on our projects, which are all-important and all-consuming needless to say, and it’s pretty much impossible, it seems to me, to properly conceive of the whole, let alone deliberate about it reasonably, except in hyper-abstract or metaphorical or very narrow and simplified terms.
7+ billion people, individual human beings, each with their lives and problems. How do you create anything like “democracy” out of that, as something human beings (generously, as individual agents capable of rational thought and civic discourse) participate in meaningfully? Representation breaks down beyond a certain scale—and anyway, is always unsatisfactory, because the individual is never truly represented in this system. Only abstractions of aggregate interests are.
The only way I can begin to imagine any kind of “solution,” very dimly, is with the aid of AI-managed computer networks on the scale of Facebook or Google, but designed for radically different purposes. Some version of globally distributed digital democracy. A noosphere of some kind. But it would have to resist centralization and monopolization by design, and need pretty intelligent immunological functions to protect against “dark magic.”
I know this is what blockchain enthusiasts imagine: we can create digitally executable social “smart contracts” that evolve to take over the functions of general political governance.
However, this doesn’t address the scale of our lives in which we matter as individuals, where we can directly participate in social power and “have our voice heard.” My proposed solution to this dimension of the problem is not theoretical. It’s the co-op…which, if it’s successful, will be a sort of digital polis where “creative democracy” is actualized.
If we had many such virtual “cities” (not just for intellectual communities, but every industry and niche that serves humans wants and needs) that were networked in a global blockchain of blockchains that’s optimized for our “better selves” over our “unconscious drives,” while taking care of the general management of resources and negotiation of attention, I could see that working.
“Scale” is definitely a, if not THE, problem. There are, I think, just too many people. And with globalization, & the Internet/information in, literally, almost, in everyone’s hand, there’s just no escape, except in places like Poudre Canyon, but even there the postmodern world intrudes by virtue of “outsiders” bringing the world in with them. Used to be migration was a solution, now, it’s a problem. In Kaplan’s book, he makes the point that the geography of the North American continent actually developed the American character/personality, which he labels “the frontier ethos”; which lead to, among other things, the Americans being able to defeat the NAZIs & imperial Japan in WWII. But he also makes the point that, to the question of democracy, quote: “minority rights are better protected by monarchies [what I call the benevolent king] and dictatorships than by tyrannies of the majority [which I think were witnessing now in_our_representative democracy] or by outright chaos.” (pg.171) I’m less optimistic than you, Marco. I can see another civil war on the horizon, if the mass media doesn’t stop its hysteria about Trump - given that “the people” are very much prone to manipulation and mind control. You can’t not be controlled by unconscious motivation/drives - it is the engine of life, the “will to power” if you will. I’ll suggest, though, that motivations and drives are not equal among “the people.” While everyone shares them, to what degree each manifests varies between individuals. If “our” democracy fails - look out. Civilization just might descend into chaos, and the “kings” will retreat to islands protected by armies of loyalists, and the very few carrier battlegoups of the US Navy. I am almost haunted by this shit.
It could go either way (or others - we students of history love to look back on thousands of years of trends and developments, then look ahead, scratch our heads and hand you a pair of dice to roll ).
The end goal would certainly be some kind of global federation of local communities organized around common interests; global so there wouldn’t be a resources war every other month and local so that human beings are not lost in the sauce of “humanity”. The AI managed network idea gives me pause - I am thinking of Frank Herbert’s Butlerian Jihad in the Dune series: men built machines to serve them and (predictably) ended up slaves to the men who ran the machines - but the virtual city/digital polis idea is intriguing, especially if they can be truly built “from the ground up”.
OTOH, God knows how we get there from the current clusterflop of hypernormal. My fellow Americans are not the most patient or far-sighted of the peoples of the world…
Fascinating discussion. Since humanity has varied only rarely from individual self-interest, what if any, “social contract” can survive within the confluence of all of the social media, fragmentation, bubbles, “alternative facts” etc.? Does Hobbes argument for creation of society via social contract (because otherwise the life of the individual without the social contract is solitary, nasty, poor, brutish and short) or Lockean theory of the natural state of mankind (free and equal) even make sense anymore?
Disinformation and propaganda have been hallmarks of many societies, including the US throughout its history, but people had to see it via newspapers, billboards or hear it via a person speaking directly to them, and the Internet has vastly expanded the ability to spread any communication (bad, good, true, untrue, serious or silly-ass) to a mind-blowing extent.
I watched it based on this review. I learned a lot, it wasn’t a waste of time, but I didn’t like it and it left a bad taste in my mouth. I got the impression Adam Curtis was intentionally muddying the waters, confusing the public, using the same techniques he was reporting on. At times it felt like propaganda to me, specially on the second half. Still, it was interesting and your discussion completed it. Greetings to you all.
P.S. Also, disinformation is an old phenomenon, it didn’t start 40 years ago.
Greetings to you, @timothylyrics.
No argument there!
In one of these threads, I cited a TED-talk interview of Yuval Noah Harari (I forget which). Your statement reminds me of his response to an audience member’s suggestion that ours was the age of “post-truth”:
“And when was the age of ‘truth’?”
OTOH, @sisspeaks rightly points out that the sheer amount of disinformation we can produce today may be reaching the point where quantity turns into a quality (bad) of its own.
Maybe this just means we no longer have the luxury of being passive - that it is up to us to be selective and discerning and to do the hard work of controlling our impulses so that it becomes at least a little bit harder for others to. But the question remains if and how critical mass can be generated on a macro-social level.
I’ll be sure to check that out.
TED lost my confidence when they banned that Rupert Sheldrake talk, but if the speaker is a serious person I’ll look the other way,
Harari always has interesting things to say from the broad historical perspective.
Sheldrake is no doubt too much for the ultra-rationalist consciousness to even begin to know what to do with. (LOL) But I thought TED had reposted the talk with the added ‘caution’ that his “ten dogmas” were controversial - not necessarily reflective of where all scientists stand. Either way, I hear you: the suppression of uncomfortable ideas (rather than a humble ‘this is why I think that’s wrong’) is a telling sign of deeper insecurity.