I think one of the effects of mass corporate culture, especially Hollywood film and TV, has been to create a very clear style code for certain events in the material real world. I was thinking of this in terms of Obama’s new crackdown on what he insists be termed “leakers” (not whistle blowers, and the reason for that is something the next link explains).
The entire NSA saga has generated a certain spin, a certain narrative, from mainstream media. But the facts….and here I will link Richard Raznikov’s recent article:
The facts….the facts are that what this amounts to is almost the exact definition of totalitarian. It is also breeding a climate of McCarthyism. A snitch culture. A paranoid culture. Now, it arrives in a new set of style codes, however. And this is where movie narratives are very important. If you were to survey the average citizen of the U.S. or U.K., I think the word totalitarian would trigger an Orwellian world, a grey and somber universe resembling earlier films that depicted East Germany and the U.S.S.R. (and those were usually, also, inventions to a large degree), or one that borrowed tropes from science fiction, and futuristic dystopian fantasies. Today’s NSA program is being sold to the public (when it’s not being hidden from the public) as *Security* — as part of a vigilant war against *terrorists*. If you ask the average American or UK citizen to come up with an image for terrorist, I’m guessing the vast majority would provide you with some picture of an Arab or dark skinned foreigner, sneaking around with a suspicious backpack.
The normalizing of surveillance is everywhere in popular culture. It’s a constant theme of network cop shows, and programs such as Homeland and 24 and all the CSI franchises, as well as a number of reality shows about Cops. Plots often revolve around the analysis of security video, and employ “facial recognition” and other high tech improvements over the antiquated ‘finger print’. None of this, none of it over forty years, actually resembles reality. In Hollywood these things are presented as close to infallible. In reality, and I will get to this in more detail in a moment, none of these security technologies are actually very reliable. But then neither is torture but that doesn’t stop its being depicted as of vital importance in narratives manufactured by Studios and networks.
The Orwell symbolism was best captured in what is now a stunningly ironic bit of marketing in the Chiat/Day super bowl spot from 1984 for Apple Computers (directed by Ridley Scott):
In terms of Obama and the escalation of surveillance, it is important to remember who is being targeted. In this sense things are not quite McCarthyesque, but in fact have totally lapped McCarthy and subsumed all earlier notions of domestic spying. In a way, terror suspect is simply a widening of “communist”, to include anyone it needs to include. The Stasi, or the Nazi apparatus for domestic control, were quite similar in some ways to what one sees today. However, it is the presentation of “Democracy” that is most interesting. Even the most draconian invasions of privacy and destruction of of the bill of rights, is treated with a happy face, and with a democratic faux debate.
News is entertainment. Smiley face news. And with friendly black faces which PROVES this is a multicultural feel good society of openness. Dick Cheney is trotted out, to play the role he has perfected over half a century, that of snarling vituperative bad cop. Then the freshly scrubbed whiteness of three black happy commentators come on to espouse the openness of Obama in comparison to the Orwellian Chiat/Day world of Bush. The reality is that there is a clear continuum from Reagan onwards, and really from WW2 onwards, toward Bush 1, to Clinton (and it was during Clinton where things took an exponential leap forward on domestic abuses of civil liberties as well as expansion of NATO and the selling and branding of humanitarian intervention) to Bush 2 to Obama.
I mentioned before that the rewriting of history is a staple of Hollywood these days. As the topic of current conflict and social unrest becomes less and less palatable (and censored) the studios and networks are resorting to ‘period’ narratives; and this revisionism instills certain memes in the public mind. The Cold War is reproduced as drab and paranoid, if the topic is politics, but the non-political 50s are reproduced as fun and carefree and “innocent”. A show like Mad Men has come to focus on style before substantive analysis of social conflict. The Bay of Pigs is mostly an excuse to trot out cool fifties TV sets and the encroaching sixties is signified by sideburns or beards, and paisley shirts, with social unrest as merely a backdrop. The trope of “innocence” is one that has been beaten to death over the last thirty years. It is a hallmark foundational construct for liberal America. We were once “innocent”. Innocently enslaving millions, innocently exterminating 600 native american tribes, innocently crushing labor strikes with Pinkerton goons, or lynching black men and launching countless colonial adventures abroad. But the idea has traction because the liberal wants to believe that reform works, that society can recapture something warm and fuzzy if only….if only whatever….people ate organic cucumbers, I don’t know.
The new series Magic City, set in 1950s Miami, sees the Cuban Revolution only in terms of the disruption to the Hotel kitchen staff and a few gangsters mourning the loss of gambling profits. More time is spent on the invitation of Jackie O to a brunch than it is to what Jackie’s husband might be doing vis a vis Cuba.
The media avoids the reality of mass incarceration in general, and certainly the treatment of dissidents such as Lynne Stewart, who suffered under the post 9 11 attack on defense lawyers…
or Bradley Manning, or Guantanamo Bay, or the release of death row inmates found innocent. The few items that do leak through are treated as aberrations. Mass incarceration is not a popular topic. There have been a number of reality shows about prison, but these are lurid tabloid voyeurism, and usually with a strong masculinist subtext, so that really they amount to extensions of MMA contests or WWF shows. The criminal is stigmatized, a freak, an object of derision and laughter, but also, somehow authentic and virile. In fact, it’s interesting that there seems to be an increase in protagonists with prison pasts. This has always been true to a degree, but it seems on the increase and is worth thinking about. Also, with such a huge prison population (more below on that) the stigma of being an ex-con is fading a bit on one level, even as the state further cuts all rights and benefits for former felons. Without intending this, the convict’s prison record is being normalized.
The culture sells itself. The government sells itself. Corporate media is there to sell a certain idea, and different shows target different demographics. Time Warner or FOX know who the audience is for any given show, and that includes news programs. The government creates marketing campaigns, and in 2010 the Department of Homeland Security launched its If you See Something, Say Somthing campaign. This is institutional snitching, but it also encourages “responsibility” from citizens, it distributes responsibility to everyday people. It asks for free police work from the general population. But, it is patriotic to be a snitch, an informer.
Now, there is an obvious contradiction in this. On the one hand the state sells its invincibility, while at the same time expressing a barely concealed need for the population to help in policing. So all that high priced technology Bloomberg just bought isn’t really enough I guess. The message here is compromised a bit, and hence all the more reason to double down on the idea of the effectiveness of high tech crime fighting in Hollywood film and TV, and in encouraging the patriotism and courage of informers. Self policing has gone from Community Watch and the Guardian Angels, both of whom were thinly concealed authoritarian entities to begin with, to a formal collaboration with the state.
And, as Joshua Reeves wrote:
“As policing responsibilities continue to be dispensed to a tech-savvy populace, we should be mindful that these
market-driven surveillance technologies will take on an even more pernicious character as the state
increasingly relies on technologized citizens to be the eyes and ears of the post-sovereign police.”
There are several questions embedded in this….one is how social media platforms (facbook, twitter, et al) and the social behavior that grew out of these, and its intersection with the society of hyper branding created new models for the casual invasion of privacy, and how also the master narrative of fear has encouraged a form of paranoia that is coupled to notions of risk (the intersection is with risk management and an appraisal-reification of friends and institutions and communities). Now, it is estimated by the U.S. govt. that there are over 50,000 neighborhood watch programs in operation. How does this relate to how these people see the police? There are contradictions in here, too, for on the one hand, there is a high level of adoration for authority at work in US culture, and on the other, in more working class neighborhoods, a total adversarial relationship to the police and courts. The motivations for Neighborhood Watch groups are going to differ from area to area, depending a lot, I suspect, on race and economics, and on the history of that region.
The poor have never trusted the cops. Period.
All these forces contribute to this new subjectivity, in a sense. Or subjective positions. The police have always protected property and those who own that property. The lateral redistribution of informal surveillance (suspicion) is probably also a part of a new (or re-manufactured) identification with power and wealth. Virtual policing connects to virtual lives and identification with things only our virtual selves have any chance to share in.
But there is likely also a surplus subject hovering around, unattached and suspicious of its own suspicions in a sense. I have a feeling this is partly a nagging doubt and skepticism, especially among the young, that these vast systems of identification are prone to massive mistakes. Just try getting your driver’s license straightened out at the DMV, or changing your address for some type of govt. check. The poor know all about this, and increasingly I suspect the young do, too. As someone said to me, the future is not Orwell so much as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. There is a good deal of truth in this. Technologies such as facial recognition are simply doomed to chronic mis-identification. And no amount of testing will ever change that fact. Humans are not silverware, stamped on the bottom, nor are they fixed and unchanging. Pets are now microchipped, and even that has led to chronic failure in tracking.
The point is that the Kitsch Orwell future of Chiat/Day isn’t the real nightmare, the real nightmare is a smiley face volunteer surveillance coexistent with social media and porn and exhibitionistic socializing of all sorts, as well as a genuine fear of institutional authority, indifferent unless property is involved, that will create both good community services, and authoritarian community entities.
The constant reiteration of certain themes in media and Hollywood film has defined the parameters of a new paranoia. It has also defined a new social enclosure, where a risk averse model for efficiency extends to the personal as well as the business world. People are advised by pop psychologists to ask ‘is that new friend good for you’?
One argument goes like this; CCTV monitors (for example) traffic. It is a service to people, it alerts them to traffic jams, to accidents on the highway, and it is possible to control parking for clients, at busy shopping mall parking structures, or insurance forms where the applicant is asked if he or she is a smoker, to adjust insurance premiums, or the demand for identification to collect a parcel at the post office. The list goes on and on. The argument is that these monitoring functions are benign and helpful. But are they? No, of course they aren’t. They are all part of a fabric, and reserving a parking space hardly mitigates the fact that your car is tracked and your location logged and that data collected. Any mention of insurance is really just black humor. This is the instrumental logic of the liberal (and yeah, of most conservatives, too), it is the logic of the manufactured modern subject. There is a question lurking in all this, and that is how technology itself has contributed, vis a vis a pardigm that is often still pre-modern, actually, in shaping consciousness. In other words, the Big Brother cliche version of totalitarian society engenders a certain perspective in how we look at ourselves, and in fact the individual is rapidly and tacitly adjusting his or her sense of identity to the need to be plugged into a system that grants reserved parking spaces…at the same time punishment increases proportionately. The surveillance state is manufacturing guilt. If one needed any proof of this the numbers for incarceration should be enough.
What needs to be kept in mind (and I intend to write a much longer post on exactly this) is that, as Bernard Harcourt put is:
“The faith in the free market emerged, hand in hand, with a theory of legal despotism according to which the state’s most legitimate function, and the one it was best able to carry out, was to police and punish.”
The evolution of capitalism and markets is tied to the growth of a framework of regulation and laws. The state (and its extension the police) were always there to enforce order, and to enforce it as if it were perfectly natural and necessary.
“In protecting property, the government is doing something quite apart from merely keeping the peace. It is exerting coercion.”
Today’s advanced surveillance state is now extending this coercion even further. The illusion of security as the driving motive for state activities of control is not surprisingly the key message of both media and the culture industry. There is no space that is not intruded upon by the state and by regulations. By laws and legal restrictions of some sort. And there is now less and less psychic space, as a result of the constant drumming of certain models of reality. By the need to remember an almost impossible number of restrictions. And by a deterritorialized labor force, and by the nature of financialized capital. Living under constant surveillance means living as criminals. Its only a question of does one’s crime meet the criteria of actionable offense for the state.
All of this is reflected in Hollywood film, and in media. The mega corporations that produce the hyper violent fascism of today’s police franchises is deeply invested, both literally and metaphorically, in neo-liberal beliefs in capitalism and free markets, and in the protection of their privilege. As the prison population continues to grow (as it has since Reagan) so has investment in security and in surveillance and policing. In fact, in California, eleven per cent of state employees work in prison affairs. It is even higher in Texas and Florida. Private prison construction is a growth industry. What is really being revealed by the new NSA boom (and its secondary level manifestations in local CCTV surveillance, etc) is the insecurity of property owners, and their wealth. The state is now focused on control and punishment. As other aspects of the state seem ever less legitimate, the role of providing security is intensified and increasingly legitimated.
The US neo-liberal state, following on the Industrial Revolution, is predicated on control. From schools to factories to prisons, the logic is one of punishment and control. Today the culture is one of institutionalized snitching, and in another register it is one of shaming. The criminal is stigmatized, forever. And the definitions for criminal continue to expand. Poverty is a crime, and shameful as well. Madness is criminalized even as it has fostered a moderate size industry of treatment (and more on that in a future posting). Many countries in Europe tended to institutionalize those problem individuals in mental hospitals rather than prison during much of the 20th century, but that trend is changing and many now follow the U.S. preference for prisons (not, it must be said, Scandanavian countries, however). But none ever approached the percentages of the U.S. The sociality of new media platforms has increased an exhibitionist dimension, that connects to surveillance, and the state’s desire to control these platforms speaks to the desire to mediate psychic space. But all of it is in play as part of a shift toward totalitarian values — the extreme wealth, ever more concentrated, means that the mechanisms of protection for that wealth will become more acute and absolute. This neo-liberal model is branded with a smiley face. It creates a chatty happy Spectacle of entertainments, a good percentage of which feature non-stop hyper violence, misogyny and racism, but always with an engine of glossy, facile and very attractive jingoism. As distrust increases, however, especially among the underclass, among those growing numbers of people disposed of, homeless or in prison, or just lost, the message must be imposed with greater force for the remaining populace still effectively plugged in.
The Obama regime is now openly exercising vindictive punishments, symbolic punishments, and arbitrary demonstrations of power. Recently Hillary Clinton was interviewed on TV, and laughed gleefully at the propsect of war. It was the cackling sound of the state, now unmoored from any rational justification for it’s actions. It is hegemonic, and it openly sneers at the misfortune of its citizenry, while plotting its next military act of “humanitarian” protection.