Sunday, May 06, 2018

Normotic Illness Culture: Programming the Social Validation Feedback Loop

CounterPunch |  Sitting alone in my room watching videos on Youtube, hearing sounds from across the hall of my roommate watching Netflix, the obvious point occurs to me that a key element of the demonic genius of late capitalism is to enforce a crushing passiveness on the populace. With social atomization comes collective passiveness—and with collective passiveness comes social atomization. The product (and cause) of this vicious circle is the dying society of the present, in which despair can seem to be the prevailing condition. With an opioid epidemic raging and, more generally, mental illness affecting 50 percent of Americans at some point in their lifetime, it’s clear that the late-capitalist evisceration of civil society has also eviscerated, on a broad scale, the individual’s sense of self-worth. We have become atoms, windowless monads buffeted by bureaucracies, desperately seeking entertainment as a tonic for our angst and ennui.

The old formula of the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott is as relevant as it always will be: “It is creative apperception more than anything that makes the individual feel that life is worth living.” If so many have come to feel alienated from life itself, that is largely because they don’t feel creative, free, or active.......
Noam Chomsky, in the tradition of Marx, is fond of saying that technology is “neutral,”neither beneficent nor baleful in itself but only in the context of particular social relations, but I’m inclined to think television is a partial exception to that dictum. I recall the Calvin and Hobbes strip in which, while sitting in front of a TV, Calvin says, “I try to make television-watching a complete forfeiture of experience. Notice how I keep my jaw slack, so my mouth hangs open. I try not to swallow either, so I drool, and I keep my eyes half-focused, so I don’t use any muscles at all. I take a passive entertainment and extend the passivity to my entire being. I wallow in my lack of participation and response. I’m utterly inert.” Where before one might have socialized outside, gone to a play, or discussed grievances with fellow workers and strategized over how to resolve them, now one could stay at home and watch a passively entertaining sitcom that imbued one with the proper values of consumerism, wealth accumulation, status-consciousness, objectification of women, subordination to authority, lack of interest in politics, and other “bourgeois virtues.” The more one cultivated a relationship with the television, the less one cultivated relationships with people—or with one’s creative capacities, which “more than anything else make the individual feel that life is worth living.”

Television is the perfect technology for a mature capitalist society, and has surely been of inestimable value in keeping the population relatively passive and obedient—distracted, idle, incurious, separated yet conformist. Doubtless in a different kind of society it could have a somewhat more elevated potential—programming could be more edifying, devoted to issues of history, philosophy, art, culture, science—but in our own society, in which institutions monomaniacally fixated on accumulating profit and discouraging critical thought (because it’s dangerous) have control of it, the outcome is predictable. The average American watches about five hours of TV a day, while 60 percent of Americans have subscription services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu. Sixty-five percent of homes have three or more TV sets.

Movie-watching, too, is an inherently passive pastime. Theodor Adorno remarked, “Every visit to the cinema, despite the utmost watchfulness, leaves me dumber and worse than before.” To sit in a movie theater (or at home) with the lights out, watching electronic images flit by, hearing blaring noises from huge surround-sound speakers, is to experience a kind of sensory overload while being almost totally inactive. And then the experience is over and you rub your eyes and try to become active and whole again. It’s different from watching a play, where the performers are present in front of you, the art is enacted right there organically and on a proper human scale, there is no sensory overload, no artificial splicing together of fleeting images, no glamorous cinematic alienation from your own mundane life.

Since the 1990s, of course, electronic media have exploded to the point of utterly dominating our lives. For example, 65 percent of U.S. households include someone who plays video games regularly. Over three-quarters of Americans own a smartphone, which, from anecdotal observation, we know tends to occupy an immense portion of their time. The same proportion has broadband internet service at home, and 70 percent of Americans use social media. As an arch-traditionalist, I look askance at all this newfangled electronic technology (even as I use it constantly). It seems to me that electronic mediation of human relationships, and of life itself, is inherently alienating and destructive, insofar as it atomizes or isolates. There’s something anti-humanistic about having one’s life be determined by algorithms (algorithms invented and deployed, in many cases, by private corporations). And the effects on mental functioning are by no means benign: studies have confirmed the obvious, that “the internet may give you an addict’s brain,” “you may feel more lonely and jealous,” and “memory problems may be more likely” (apparently because of information overload). Such problems manifest a passive and isolated mode of experience.

But this is the mode of experience of neoliberalism, i.e., hyper-capitalism. After the upsurge of protest in the 1960s and early ’70s against the corporatist regime of centrist liberalism, the most reactionary sectors of big business launched a massive counterattack to destroy organized labor and the whole New Deal system, which was eating into their profits and encouraging popular unrest. The counterattack continues in 2018, and, as we know, has been wildly successful. The union membership rate in the private sector is a mere 6.5 percent, a little less than it was on the eve of the Great Depression, and the U.S. spends much less on social welfare than comparable OECD countries. Such facts have had predictable effects on the cohesiveness of the social fabric.