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by Rob Horning

1 Oct 2008

3 Quarks Daily linked to an interview with Sarah Palin conducted by conservative Hugh Hewitt. I don’t advise reading the whole thing, unless you want to vomit, but the bit highlighted by 3QD is fairly illustrative of where democracy in America is at:

HH: Governor, your candidacy has ignited extreme hostility, even some hatred on the left and in some parts of the media. Are you surprised? And what do you attribute this reaction to?

SP: Oh, I think they’re just not used to someone coming in from the outside saying you know what? It’s time that normal Joe six-pack American is finally represented in the position of vice presidency, and I think that that’s kind of taken some people off guard, and they’re out of sorts, and they’re ticked off about it, but it’s motivation for John McCain and I to work that much harder to make sure that our ticket is victorious, and we put government back on the side of the people of Joe six-pack like me, and we start doing those things that are expected of our government, and we get rid of corruption, and we commit to the reform that is not only desired, but is deserved by Americans.

This strikes me as total insanity. I am not sure what it would mean for “normal Joe Six-Pack” to be “represented” in the vice presidency, but I assume it means putting a “regular” person (as opposed to a “career politican”) in the position to illustrate some reality TV-like premise that anyone can be considered fit for governing and that being an executive in charge of one of the largest and most intricate bureaucracies the world has ever seen is just a matter of common sense and Christian values. It is the very essence of the problem with the Bush administration: the idea that competence is a fiction and any Joe Six-Pack can be put in charge and everything will be just fine. Basically, the implication is that the vice presidency, as well as every other leadership position in government, serves an entirely symbolic function. The figureheads in these slots don’t have to have any expertise; they simply need to represent some idea that appeals to some aspect of the electorate. Palin doesn’t even bother to deny that this is so. The whole point of her inclusion on the Republican ticket is to be average, to be the antithesis of capable, and to encourage voters to express their contempt for politics by electing a truly incompetent politician—someone who is just like us.

In the LRB, Jonathan Raban connects Palin’s glorification of Joe Six-Pack with Poujadism, the anti-intellectual movement inspired by French demagogue Pierre Poujade.

Sarah Palin has put a new face and voice to the long-standing, powerful, but inchoate movement in US political life that one might see as a mutant variety of Poujadism, inflected with a modern American accent. There are echoes of the Poujadist agenda of 1950s France in its contempt for metropolitan elites, fuelling the resentment of the provinces towards the capital and the countryside towards the city, in its xenophobic strain of nationalism, sturdy, paysan resistance to taxation, hostility to big business, and conviction that politicians are out to exploit the common man.

To placate this bloc of voters, it’s most effective to persuade them that government can be made to disappear, and they can all then be happy kulaks in their peasant paradise.

Given these dynamics, it’s futile to criticize Palin from any East Coast elitist like me would consider a rational viewpoint. Raban takes a shot anyway, highlighting what seems most threatening about her—her smug contempt for intellectual curiosity:

What is most striking about her is that she seems perfectly untroubled by either curiosity or the usual processes of thought. When answering questions, both Obama and Joe Biden have an unfortunate tendency to think on their feet and thereby tie themselves in knots: Palin never thinks. Instead, she relies on a limited stock of facts, bright generalities and pokerwork maxims, all as familiar and well-worn as old pennies. Given any question, she reaches into her bag for the readymade sentence that sounds most nearly proximate to an answer, and, rather than speaking it, recites it, in the upsy-downsy voice of a middle-schooler pronouncing the letters of a word in a spelling bee. She then fixes her lips in a terminal smile. In the televised game shows that pass for political debates in the US, it’s a winning technique: told that she has 15 seconds in which to answer, Palin invariably beats the clock, and her concision and fluency more than compensate for her unrelenting triteness.

But any attempt to highlight Palin’s failure to grasp the complexity of any issue facing America can be spun as being part of the “conspiracy” against ordinary people, but in this case the conspiracy is simply an acknowledgment of consensus politics as it must be exercised in a democratic government of any scale. Professional politicians are necessary to make government work, and the nature of the job—its ambiguities and compromises and negotiations; the stuff that requires actual deliberation and judgment—doesn’t lend itself well to glamorous portrayal in simplified stories about heroes and individual greatness. But when we vote—for most of us, the one great heroic act of civic participation we manage to muster the energy for every few years—we don’t want to waste it on a compromised character. Thus, we are better off knowing very little about the actual careers or evolving positions of the people we vote for; for the vicarious function of voting, an iconic nobody like Palin is perfect.

by Jason Gross

1 Oct 2008

Maybe not but it’s disheartening to see them file for bankruptcy.  Great publication that had quality arts coverage in it.  I’d even say the same about the New York Sun, despite its pathetically fawning coverage of Dubya.

by Rob Horning

1 Oct 2008

Good to see that former antichrist John Lydon is appearing in an ad for Country Life butter. Where would we be if punk hadn’t upended the establishment and ushered in a whole new set of values based on integrity, authenticity, and a refusal to support the status quo?

by Kirstie Shanley

30 Sep 2008

My Bloody Valentine—a legendary band who epitomized the shoegaze genre, if not actually defined it in some sense—brought their own sound system to Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom, filling the space with raging cascades of sound. Channeling an ethereal sort of madness, the Irish four-piece played with a transcendent force that tore through the enraptured crowd.

As one might expect, a band like My Bloody Valentine does not conform to a typical stage presence. There is very little in the way of words or even spaces between songs. The stage was filled with drastic periods of alternating darkness and blinding light. Shielded from the front section of the stage with plexiglass sound barriers, bassist Debbie Googe stayed in the back next to drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig. Despite this obvious distancing, they worked effectively together to provide a building tension and edgy rhythm. Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher stayed in front but apart, visible at times only between shadows and strobes. The intensity of their impact lay not within any facial expressions but within the massive sound they created. 

Through all the grinding and swirling guitars provided by Shields and Butcher, the sweetness of Butcher’s vocals drifted across the audience throughout most of the night, helping to lessen the harshness with a strong feminine presence. The band, back after a prolonged hiatus (their last album was released in 1991), played many key favorites from Isn’t Anything and Loveless with a focus on the latter of the two. The audience stood transfixed as the band powered through “Feed Me with Your Kiss”, “I Only Said”, Only Shallow”, “When You Sleep”, and “To Here Knows When”. And while there were times when the noise climbed to such a height that it became impossible to distinguish a song’s separate element, these decibel-destroying occasions allowed the tunes to take on a new shape.

The pivotal moment of the set came during “You Made Me Realize”, which broke off into over twenty minutes of evolving noise that locked into a strange infinity. It was impossible not to feel like you were surviving something outside this world that was as heavenly as it was traumatic. In many ways, it felt like punishment served at the same time as salvation. Halfway through the sonic assault, audience members reached up in the air, grabbing the dissolving molecules of sound as if they were pieces of chocolate. This was the sort of pounding that might lead to blistering, but it was a welcome assault, and left the impression that, oddly enough, it was the silence that was too loud.

by Rob Horning

30 Sep 2008

In continuing to think about whether social networking is engineered to make us more narcissistic, I picked up Christopher Lasch’s study The Culture of Narcissism, the dour condemnation of 1970s America that helped prompt Jimmy Carter’s infamous malaise speech. Early in the first chapter, after arguing that Americans are helplessly dependent on bureaucratic institutions, he unloads with this:

Narcissism represents the psychological dimension of this dependence. Notwithstanding his occasional illusions of omnipotence, the narcissist depends on others to validate his self-esteem. He cannot live without an admiring audience. His apparent freedom from family ties and institutional constraints does not free him to stand alone or to glory in his individuality. On the contrary, it contributes to his insecurity, which he can overcome only by seeing his “grandiose self” reflected in the attentions of others, or by attaching himself to those who radiate celebrity, power, and charisma. For the narcissist, the world is a mirror, whereas the rugged individualist saw it as am empty wilderness to be shaped by his own design.

The applications of this to social networked seem pretty self-evident. The empty profile page provides the illusion of providing that “empty wilderness” to conquer, but that is just the alibi for the real function of social networks, which is to gratify our bottomless need to be validated in as close to real time as possible. Clearly Facebook and Twitter serve to meet that need, and what’s more, it taps into the latent narcissism of all its users, rendering self-involvement even more socially acceptable. It’s now a perfectly plausible and respectable basis for a business model.

In general, The Culture of Narcissism is a bit cranky and dated, and a bit too much of a jeremiad to be persuasive; its chief virtue is to reference Richard Sennett’s far more comprehensive and convincing The Fall of Public Man, which charts the disappearance of the public sphere and speculates about what exactly caused it to vanish. The gist of Sennett’s argument is that (perhaps for reasons that Habermas articulates in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere) society was once such that we maintained public and private selves: We donned a public persona, guided by rules of public conduct, when we sought to contribute to society, and in private we had an intimate self appropriate for family life. The two were only tangentially related, and neither was considered the absolutely authentic, real self. With the rules of civilization clearly in place, public discourse was civil and impersonal, and therefore far more objective and constructive, a place for “rational-critical debate”—- the sort of thing Habermas celebrates.

But thanks to the individualism fomented by the rise of capitalism prompted a growing fascination with authenticity, “realism” in the novelistic sense, depth psychology, and the all-consuming importance of an integral identity that we establish in our own minds through our deeds and public behavior. (The roots of this can be glimpsed in the 18th century cult of sensibility and then romanticism. In those movements was the advent of studied spontaneity. The 18th century had vestiges of a theatricalized public sphere that is annihilated by a new emphasis on authentic personality—one must represent rather than present emotion, so all public behavior is at a remove from the new standard of authenticity. Anxiety, and vulnerability to marketing campaigns, ensues.) Gradually we started to conceive as the public sphere as a place to establish our identity; it became a mirror rather than a realm for discourse and the shared social construction of reality. This makes social interaction difficult, since our whole personality is at stake, at all times, with all people we encounter. Consequently, convenience becomes synonymous with avoiding interpersonal contact (self-service begins in earnest). And we fall prey to “passive participation,” or the impulse to vicariousness, which allows us to partake in society, now reconceived as a kind of pageant of self, but without the vulnerability. Hence deliberation and conversation are out; marketing and celebritization are in. And the next thing you know, there are tattoo parlors on Main Street.

Facebook and Twitter would seem to complete the erosion of the wall between public and private selves, offering us the technology to broadcast every moment of our private lives as if the world was nothing but an audience waiting for updates, or a canvas onto which to paint our ever-evolving self-concept. It moves us from vicariousness to a more direct kind of self-display, because the filter of the internet shields us from the rejection incumbent with social participation (aka “social anxiety”). I imagine, though, that apologists for the technologies view the matter in precisely the opposite way, regarding the space of social networking as a rebirth of the public sphere, where no identity represented should be regarded as authentic but as evidence of free play and an experimental testing of possibilities for the purposes of our collective edification. But I don’t think that holds up: Most people would regard having multiple profiles on the same social networking site as sneaky, and a fictitious profile not as a expression of creativity but a pack of lies. Social networks seem to function as a more manageable substitute for actual presence in relationships, you get the upside of validation of your “true self” without the hassle of actual reciprocity. What distinguishes social networks from the blogosphere generally is that they are defined specifically by their not being forums for the exploration and debate of ideas. The prevailing purpose is to display yourself to your best advantage and “stay in touch” with people with whom it would otherwise take effort to remain in touch with.

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