This Is Your Brain on YouTube

by Norman Ball

22 June 2011


Polish Your Metaphors Later, Poets

How we reach a totalitarian state is the difference between consent and coercion. This is a crucial point, ‘the manufacture of consent’ is a term coined by Walter Lippmann and later developed by Noam Chomsky. For perfect control to claim legitimacy, it must appear as though we have brought the condition upon ourselves. Though no great fan of Orwell, Chomsky expanded upon Lippmann’s phrase as, “an Orwellian euphemism for thought control. The idea is that in a state such as the U.S., where the government can’t control the people by force, it had better control what they think.”

Why, you may ask, must perfect complete control be concerned about its legitimacy? Well, it’s a little tautological, but if total control feels like suppression, it falls short of perfection. We have to build it. We have to embrace it. O’Brien could just as easily kill 1984’s Winston. However, it’s important that Winston’s consent be extracted.

Human imagination can still subvert the machine. Imagination is the unseen screen against which video can only aspire to the crudest approximations. You must become an unabashed weirdo, a bedeviling mass of contradictions to the reductionist Gestapo-template.

Manufactured consent is a fascinating, if eerie, concept. Let’s say, over a generation or two, certain media masters succeed in manipulating a society into the enjoyment of only two things: Simon Cowell and Harry Potter. Within these two spheres of interest, ‘libertarian’ latitude is allowed. None of this goes down in an overt or suppressive way. The people have exactly what they want. Of course someone worked diligently behind the scenes to conform their interests to this restricted sphere of activity. When was the last time you visited the local library to see whether Catcher in the Rye was still a state-approved title? What, you no longer visit the library? Then it shouldn’t concern you that we burned Salinger out back with Twain.

Does a burned book make a crackle in an oblivious society? When freedom of expression atrophies to the point where only a handful of “expression-tracts” remain, no one expresses outrage over the huge chunks of culture gone AWOL.

Manufactured consent is the velvety sieve that delivers tomorrow’s authoritarian system. Today’s America is already an authoritarian system wrapped in a democratic mythos and a red-blue fictional narrative. In many respects the Internet cloud crashed the party. Slowly it is being recast in an authoritarian frame.

The huge tragedy is that we are handing this wonderful distributed system, the Internet, back over to centralized overlords. The topology of the Internet meshes with radical democracy. In many ways, the Internet is a fulfillment of democratic aspirations. Every node is equal. The websites of the powerful begin with www just like Pee-wee Herman’s. Though is taken, Godaddy assures us can be had for $11.99 a month. Yes, the cloud is nothing but the sum of its nodes. We have arrived: E Pluribus Unum!

There’s cachet in the obverse of that venerable Latin phrase, as well. In his landmark TV essay, 1993’s E Unibus Pluram, the late David Foster Wallace explored the layers of irony that govern television as a cultural phenomenon. Of course his essay was written prior to the blight of reality TV, you know, during the halcyon era of, ah, Friends. There are for example the people on TV who know they’re being watched and ‘act’ accordingly (in fact we have a name for them, actors.) Then there are the watchers who often love nothing more than to hate the people they are watching while at the same time envying or worshipping, the people who play the people. This synopsis hardly does justice to Wallace’s elaborate investigation (intended largely for a fiction-writer audience.)

Irony shares a common feature with money. Both require a split-screen. Money facilitates transactions between two parties. Irony permits asynchronous appraisals between two points-of-view. When Shakespeare’s prophecy is fulfilled and the world truly becomes a fully-non-collapsible, rotating stage, the bifurcation of screen and sofa, us and them, will wither away because the ubiquity of the observable will extinguish it. The incongruities that allow irony, two discrete observation posts, will be simultaneously exposed and melded into an “indistinguishable one”. Ironic distance will collapse.

Power accrues and never disbands. There is this chaste notion that the Rothschild family acquired huge swathes of earthly wealth and power only to, what, forsake it all? This view commits yet another variant of the fallacy of mistaking the unseen for the nonexistent. When a certain critical mass of power is reached, the ego-need to parade it disappears. Only the nouveau riche seek the cover of People magazine, whereas real multi-generational power is comfortable in its own brocade skin. There’s no one left to impress, no one to curry favor from for the purpose of securing a promotion. This is because, in certain rarefied strata of society, there are no promotions.

While I’m not a wild-eyed conspiratorial type, having invoked that surname, it’ll be interesting to see if I make it through ‘til morning. There’s little question that wealth has been on an inexorable ascent back into the pockets of the well-heeled. After a brief flirtation with middle-classes and libertarian ideals, societies are returning to their inherent plutocratic predispositions. For the most part, they are accomplishing this in a silent “trickle-up” fashion. Remarkably, the hue and cry one might expect has, for all appearances, been “manufactured” away.

What is the only defense, you ask? We need the poet’s eccentricity, but on a massive (though not mass) scale. Yes, you too can be a poet and it won’t even cost you $19.95. Forget, if you can, all the word-fixation that clouds the essential orientation that is poetry. You can polish your metaphors later. We need poets in their natural role as agitators of the status quo.

How does a poet put one foot in front of the other? If the received wisdom turns right, he turns left until such time as he finds himself accompanied by a growing army of like-minded poets. Like-mindedness is the poison, not the antidote. When the antidote becomes the poison, as it is so often does, he crouches down and howls at the moon. Or he climbs a nearby tree. Human imagination can still subvert the machine. Imagination is the unseen screen against which video can only aspire to the crudest approximations. You must become an unabashed weirdo, a bedeviling mass of contradictions to the reductionist Gestapo-template.

The Spanish Civil War was an indispensable crucible for birthing socially-astute poets (not to mention that aspect of poetry which one runs the risk of overstressing in times of great social need, the poems themselves): Cesar Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz; then the martyrs, Federico Garcia Lorca and Miguel Hernandez.

Vallejo’s poem Mass could just as well be an inverted parable for that corpse-like Mohican, the last man to adopt Facebook:

At the end of the battle the fighter lay dead. A man came to him
and said: ‘Don’t die! I love you too much!’
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.

Two came to him and again said:
‘Don’t leave us! Take heart!
Come back to life!’
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.

Then twenty, a hundred, a thousand,
Five hundred thousand, came, crying:
‘So much love and yet so powerless against death!’
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.

Millions surrounded him,
pleading together:
‘Brother, don’t leave us!’
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.

Then, all the men on earth
stood round him. The corpse eyed them sadly,
overwhelmed. He got up slowly,
embraced the first man, started to walk…

(translated by Paul O’Prey)

I’m reluctant to offer much more on this subject for fear of spawning poetry collectives. That would ruin the whole thing. Poets must be solitary and profoundly disconnected. Librarians and Facebook groups turn them into schools and movements. Gathered up, even with the best of intentions, a poet’s singular vision dissolves into incoherency or mildly stirring slogans. We have so many venues for the muffled shuffle of the crowd’s feet. Facebook is only the latest, and most efficient, gatherer in a long, ignoble line. A poetic sensibility is the only bulwark against the overwhelming, regimenting forces of conformance, the prelude to totalitarian hell. Yes, some ineffable Fuhrer may be waiting for us behind the Internet storm-cloud. By spewing torrents of earnest, albeit journeyman poetry from all corners of the globe, we can extend the game until, say, about 2018. As for reaching 2020 in a reasonably unshackled condition, I just don’t see us having the poetic vision for it.

Norman Ball is a Virginia-based writer and musician. His two latest books, How Can We Make Your Power More Comfortable? (Del Sol Press, 2010) and The Frantic Force (Petroglyph Books, 2011) can be purchased online.

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