TV, social media, “authenticity” and “crazy” politics

Here are some half-formed thoughts on media and politics aping things that have been said before but hopefully adding a touch of originality and something in the way of synthesis.

Social media and smartphones are a key new piece of the political context. But not only do people still watch lots of TV, current day political figures of note first gained mass recognition on TV in a unique way. Some key “points” I’m preoccupied with in this write up are the transition from TV to social media, the ambiguity that now exists between the two mediums and the argument about which is more responsible for recent political developments.  

Three figures fit a vague but niche trajectory. Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Eric Zemmour were all stars on TV debate and current affairs programming for years. Trump stands apart from the other two men as he had a massive TV presence outside of politics and Zemmour is as yet much less significant than Trump and Bolsonaro but all three were constantly put on TV to be provocative. Because they were constantly put on TV for that purpose, regular rules of conduct didn’t apply to them. It was their job to flout normal behaviour so it would be silly to expect anything else short of regulation or mass change in taste.

These men were “made” to be the provocative stars of niche content and therefore anticipated the current social media vibe. Because regular rules didn’t apply to them, they came to be understood as more “authentic” to many people. Today, if you are a public figure but “withhold” on camera you don’t get traction. The current context often rewards acting “crazy,” basically. Social media based “authenticity” seems to have the connotation of wild behaviour and emotional instability. In any event, many figures—political and otherwise—have developed massive followings strictly on the basis of this type of conduct and presentation.

This standard of “authenticity”—and by extension the political figures who meet it—presumably relates somehow to the current tendency to “mental health acceptance.” My impression is that this same tendency renders what I’m saying here mildly politically incorrect. Would it be self-involved to say it therefore inhibits understanding? It’s hard to take pure “craziness” as a starting point in the current discursive context even though it’s clearly a phenomenon.

Part of the reason for social media’s symbiosis with neuroticism is its intimacy of consumption. People are literally lying down in bed or in the washroom with the conceit that they are simultaneously participating in social life and politics. To some extent this was already true with mass media of course, people “participated” in events by listening to radio or wrote letters in bed, but it’s true in a new way now, and taking place in a new social environment. The feedback loop with loneliness and atomization is cliché but true in my opinion. Neuroticism and loneliness make “authentic” figures more appealing for obvious reasons.

Social media actively “includes” neurotics more than classic mass media and also augments neuroticism generally. One preoccupation that lots of people have in the current day is fear of exposure. They correctly think that they are liable to be photographed or recorded in any number of contexts, with the results possibly ending up online. Judging from many viral videos, other people, or perhaps the same people, take the opportunity of being “exposed” to finally “overcome” their fear and “act out,” or “let it all out.” It makes sense that the political figures I’m highlighting would appeal in this context. They do relentlessly what many people—especially more marginal and excluded types—subconsciously crave.

It would drive almost anyone “crazy” to be the target of the current chaos of media coverage but these guys were already “crazy.” These pre-“crazified” figures match the “craziness” of the current context. Marshall McLuhan said that on TV you have to wear a “mask.” That rings true, but were/are these men masked? Possibly, but perhaps they were exempted. McLuhan also said that the previous medium becomes the content for the current one. That seems to fit TV and social media fairly well, obviously. The current media context is overwhelming. There’s a feeling of info-chaos, active competition between many mediums, people consuming many forms of media simultaneously and so on. These political figures revel in the chaos instinctively, they defy fragmentation even to the point of feeling “present” in social life quite unlike other contemporary figures.

This essay ended up going in at least two different directions. One more sociological, the other attempting a sketch at a distinct political subtype and its relationship to different methods/phases of communication. I’ll also add that Zemmour has less of a “crazy” presentation when compared with Trump and Bolsonaro. For that reason, and because as already noted he is as yet less significant, it’s tempting to exclude him. That said, he is clearly the “wild” person in the French context so perhaps the same basic picture applies.

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Jennifer Silva on working-class young adulthood in the USA

Jennifer M. Silva is a Professor of Sociology at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. The following quotes are from her book Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, a contemporary classic.

“She taught me love
She taught me patience
How she handles pain
That shit’s amazing
I’ve loved and I’ve lost
But that’s not what I see
‘Cause look what I’ve found

-Ariana Grande

“Over and over again, the men and women I interviewed told me that growing up means learning not to expect anything from anyone. They told stories of investing their time and energy in relationships and institutions, only to find that their efforts were one-sided. I demonstrate how experiences of betrayal, within both the labor market and the institutions that frame their coming of age experiences, teach young working-class men and women that they are completely alone, responsible for their own fates and dependent on outside help only at their peril.

They learn to approach others with suspicion and distrust. Many make a virtue out of necessity, equating self-reliance and atomic individualism with self-worth and dignity: if they had to survive on their own, then everyone else should too. In an era of short-term flexibility, constant flux. and hollow institutions, the transition to adulthood has been inverted; coming of age does not entail entry into social groups and institutions but rather the explicit rejection of them.”

“For the vast majority of the men and women I spoke with, coming of age has been reimagined as a psychic struggle to triumph over the demons of their pasts. These ‘demons’ take several different forms: pain or betrayal in past relationships; emotional, mental, or cognitive disorders (e.g., depression, dyslexia, or anxiety); or addiction to drugs, alcohol, or pornography. Hurtful and agonizing betrayals within the family lie at the root of these torments, grounding their adult identities in the quest to heal their wounded selves. Through telling their stories of confronting a difficult past, working-class women and men stake a claim to dignity and respect, based not on traditional markers of adulthood but on having undergone emotional trauma and emerged, triumphantly, as survivors.”

“…couples who want to create relationships that foster the growth of their deepest selves find that self-realization requires resources that they do not have, and they must decide whether commitment is worth sacrificing their own interests and desires. For women, fears of losing the self predominate: their sense of self feels too fragile to risk in a relationship. Because many young people fear disappointment, betrayal, and dissolution, they often choose to be alone.

In a world where you have only yourself—hard-won through privation and suffering—to depend on, relationships feel overwhelmingly risky. Caught between two impossible ideals of love, many find themselves unable to forge romantic relationships that are both satisfying and lasting. Respondents thus numb the ache of betrayal and the hunger for connection by embracing cultural ideals of self-reliance, individualism, and personal responsibility.”

“As the coming of age stories of working-class young people reveal, the strain of risk-bearing has split individuals, families, and communities apart, leaving them with only the deep and unyielding belief that personal responsibility is the key to meaning, security, and freedom. In an era defined by neoliberal ideology and policy, collective solutions to risk run counter to common sense. Young working-class men and women understand personal choice and self-control as the very basis for who they are, and blame themselves, rather than large-scale economic precariousness and risk privatization, for lacking the tools they need to navigate their futures.”

The smartphone screen as railcar window

“With speed, there is quantitatively more for the brain to deal with. This is not specific to the railroad but part of modernity more broadly, including the rise of the city. The classical social theorist Georg Simmel described this urban perception as an ‘intensification of nervous stimulation,’ as opposed to slow, lasting impressions which ‘use-up, so to speak, less consciousness than does the rapid crowding of changing images.’ The modern condition was thought of as a general onslaught of things to pay attention to, newly positioning the urban railroad-riding individual as a kind of spectator to an existence slipping quickly by.

The railroad positioned the world for the traveler as some thing passing, distant, to be taken as scenery framed by a cabin window. Schivelbusch expands on philosopher Dolf Sternberger’s description of this way of seeing as a ‘panoramic vision,’ a view that foregrounds the back—the passenger barely noticing that which is most near, reduced to an incon sequential blur by rapidity—and detaches the passenger from this space immediately surrounding the train car. Opposed to slower travel, where the passing landscape can be lingered upon and seen in great detail, railway speed produced a panoramic vision where the landscape is not seen for as long or intensively, its particularities are instead taken in as a part of an ongoing flow instead of discreetly. Always quickly vanishing, the landscape becomes more impressionistic, evanescent; panoramic vision is seeing the world as montage. This panoramic vision produced by the rapid succession of imagery is a useful way to frame the contemporary type of vision that social photography encourages, both in how we make and consume the images. The social photo is often viewed through the grid, stream, or story to be finger-scrolled, swiped, and tapped. The images in their proliferation and rapidity create an emergent stream in aggregate, and for the person doing the swiping, there is a more panoramic view of social life, akin to the montaged scenery from the train window.”

Auguste Comte (1798-1857) – notes

  • Context for Auguste Comte’s life: France was in a social crisis in the first half of the 19th century—roughly Comte’s lifetime. There was class conflict in the context of industrialization. The country was divided between enlighteners/revolutionaries and conservatives. Throughout the 19th century France flip-flopped between governments.
  • Comte was dismayed at the restoration of the monarchy in 1814. He saw that the old France was dying and knew the nation had to progress but thought that the radicals did not have the answers and proposed more moderate reforms instead.
  • Comte’s positivism was based on the notion of a progressive development from theological and metaphysical views. Positivism = facts, but facts made coherent by a unifying analysis.
  • Comte thought that positivism would influence human sciences in order of difficulty with sociology—basically “human affairs” as opposed to hard sciences—coming last. For Comte, sociology was the sum of all sciences.
  • Comte approached society as a realm of social interaction, rules and institutions, not individuals. Comte asked: given the turn to individualism, how is social order and stability maintained?
  • If sociology could outline the underlying principles of social order it could be used to guide social reforms. This was Comte’s logic and the first premise of sociology.

Immanuel Wallerstein on the origins of sociology

“…the dominant liberal ideology of the nineteenth century . . . argued that state and market, politics and economics, were analytically separate. . . . Society was adjured to keep them separate, and scholars studied them separately. Since there seemed to be many realities that apparently were neither in the domain of the market, nor in that of the state, these realities were placed in a residual grab-bag which took as compensation the grand name of sociology. . . . Finally, since there were people beyond the realm of the civilized world, . . . the study of such peoples encompasses special rules and special training, which took on the somewhat polemical name of anthropology.”

C. Wright Mills and the Sociological Imagination

“Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps.” The average person is unaware of the connection between mass social change, the individual and society. He or she does not possess the quality of mind essential to grasp the interplay.

The pace of change has increased and the typical person is now impacted by “world history.” Colonies are freed, revolutions occur and totalitarian societies rise. The “means of authority and of violence become total in scope and bureaucratic in form.”

Men sense “that older ways of feeling and thinking have collapsed and that newer beginnings are ambiguous.” People need “the sociological imagination” to summarize what is going on in the world and its connection to what is happening “within themselves.”

This imagination “enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals.” The sociological imagination connects biography and history.

The individual can come to understanding only by “locating” themselves in a group of peers. People are made by circumstance and contribute “minutely.” We’ve learned that “the limits of human nature are frighteningly broad.”

Classic social analysts consistently orient themselves with three questions: “What is the structure of this particular society as a whole?,” “Where does this society stand in human history?” and “What varieties of men and women now prevail in this society and this period?”

The sociological imagination can “shift from one perspective to another,” from the political to the psychological and from the most remote to the most intimate.

An “issue” as identified by the sociological imagination often involves “a crisis in institutional arrangements.” To understand the challenges in the private or personal you must frequently look beyond them. Awareness of the social structure and the ability to use this knowledge with great sensibility is the ideal.

A key contemporary question: how do major trends impact values? After all, a threat to values is experienced as a crisis. In the absence of values, experience is coloured by malaise, indifference, anxiety and apathy.

The 1930’s were an explicitly political period but nowadays “great public issues as well as many private troubles are described in terms of ‘the psychiatric’ -often, it seems, in a pathetic attempt to avoid the large issues and problems of modern society.”

The chief danger today “lies in the unruly forces of contemporary society itself, with its alienating methods of production, its enveloping methods of political domination, its international anarchy -in a word, its pervasive transformations of the very “nature” of man…”