Paradoxes

[14 October 2010]

By Rob Horning

I’m not sure that there is a unifying theme to what follows, but I wanted to clear some tabs and have a vague nagging feeling that these items should be blogged about together.

1. This is from the interminable recent profile of Nick Denton, the Gawker Media impresario, in the New Yorker:

“I think people are sort of waking up to it now, how probably the biggest change in Internet media isn’t the immediacy of it, or the low costs, but the measurability,” Denton told me. “Which is actually terrifying if you’re a traditional journalist, and used to pushing what people ought to like, or what you think they ought to like.”

I think that is true about online sociality as well, that the measurability is more profoundly disruptive than the immediacy or convenience of it. In our friendships, we once were, like traditional journalists, much more apt to push the aspects of our personality that we thought they ought to like, to use Denton’s phrasing. But know we have the means to question that way of going about things, we have new tools to fuel self-doubt and second-guess ourselves and our social instincts. We have data-collecting tools to elevate our suspicions about what our friends really think of us, make all our paranoias viable. This can’t help but affect our behavior. The data doesn’t constitute real knowledge of some pre-existing truth about our social life, but instead posits its own truth, a new and, in my opinion, debilitating epistemology.

2. This is from a piece by Slavoj Žižek in the new LRB about the Chinese Communist Party:

An anecdote from Deng Xiaoping’s era illustrates the weirdness of the Party hierarchy. Deng was still alive, though retired from the post of general secretary, when one of the top members of the nomenklatura was purged. The official reason was that, in an interview with a foreign journalist, he had divulged a state secret: namely, that Deng was still the supreme authority and was effectively taking all the decisions. In fact everybody knew that Deng was still pulling the strings; it’s just that it was never allowed to be officially stated. The secret was not simply a secret: it announced itself as a secret. Thus, today, it isn’t that people are supposed not to know that a hidden Party structure shadows the state agencies: they are supposed to be fully aware that there is such a hidden network.

This exemplifies Žižek’s theory of ideology as a kind of open secret, a kind of doing it anyway despite knowing it is all lies and pretense. A variant on that is the Lacanian premise of the big other, the overriding social fiction that legitimizes localized bad behavior, allows one to excuse oneself. The Big Other makes us do bad things; it’s not our fault. This is the governing paradox of authoritarian regimes. I also think it governs Facebook in some way, but I haven’t worked it out yet.

3. This is from Jonah Weiner’s Slate article about GIF files making a comeback:

In the two minutes it might take me to load a viral video and watch it in full, I can watch the money shots of 15 different viral videos. Yes, we’re talking about decadent levels of impatience, inanity, and time-wasting here, but GIFs allow us to waste less time online—or, rather, to waste it more efficiently.

This on the other hand is the governing paradox of contemporary consumer capitalism. We are driven to find ways to be more efficient in our wastefulness.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/132239-/