Last week, the culture industry. This week, philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman turn to the psychological effects of contemporary media.
Babette Babich: Noam Chomsky basically rewrites this theme of culture industry [the subject of last week’s discussion] in his own book Media Control, in which he defines the same thing, again and again. I don’t think it matters whether one reads Horkheimer and Adorno or Bernays or Benjamin, much less Anders or Marcuse, and most recently Chomsky. For me it is telling that Chomsky could not break the point down any more than he did, complete with semi-insulting allusions to things “any teenager” should be able to grasp. People read Chomsky’s book and remain persuaded that they are not affected by “media control.” And where David Berry remains very sensitive to the Frankfurt School, just as he might be, as author of Critical Theory and the Digital, Alexander R. Galloway is much less so, mixing Agamben and Rawls, to come to same literally take or leave it conclusion in The Interface Effect, arguing that leaving it, just leaving it, can be an option, and although his closing “whatever” is drawn from Agamben one can also hear it California-style, and that works too for fielding “no questions” and leaving “very little to say.” If I’d like a little more rigor, the persistence of the conviction that such a leaving is actually an option – one assumes one is not affected by media control – renouncing “predication” remains appealing. For me the appeal of such a conclusion, the very conviction that one can stand down and return to being what one is, “whatever that may be,” is worth noting.
Chris Bateman: I would suggest there are at least two reasons why people remain convinced of their immunity to these issues. The first is our power to narrativise: our very capacity as beings is to be a story of ourselves, one that we edit as we go. I open Chaos Ethics with the horror that is my ‘paper time machine’, that is, diaries going back thirty years to 1984. When I revisit what past-me wrote, it doesn’t tally with the story in my head – because maintaining the narrative of our own ‘I’ is not the same as remembering all our prior events. We simply cannot do this. The other reason is we have become more consciously aware of things like advertising tricks and ‘spin’, and assume that this awareness immunises us... but of course, this is not inoculation at all but merely acclimatisation. Do you think any philosopher has the capacity to make this point about ‘media control’ or ‘culture industry’ or ‘the Hallelujah Effect’ sink in?
BB: Slavoj Žižek comes closest maybe but even he, spitting and all, with all of his wonderfully Slovenian in-your-face charm, has no effect on these many and several ‘effects’ either. Thus if, in The Hallelujah Effect, I point to the phenomenological and hermeneutical how of the same, some inevitable (but nonetheless to me, as author, disappointing) part of the point of what I say about it is that it will, rather by definition (which I do give!), make little difference to the reader.
CB: Perhaps... but despite already having a variety of general concerns in this area (as a producer of commercial cultural artefacts who is actively involved in decisions that manipulate people’s behaviour) I would say The Hallelujah Effect brought me back to questioning the use of music in media, and widened the scope of my concerns. I had, for instance, been struck with the sense in which nature documentaries had come to use music to ensure the story they tell is the one they have chosen. This is not an ‘objective’ form at all; no audio-visual media could be. And your reflections on the Hallelujah Effect radically expanded the scope of my concerns here, and situated them significantly in the context of online content aggregators like YouTube.
BB: As Adam Curtis’s 2002 documentary shows (if one prefers a film to a book) in The Century of the Self — it is important to watch all the episodes and remember the bits as one goes along — the efficacy of ‘The Culture Industry’ that I unpack with reference to music and YouTube and Facebook, in particular, in The Hallelujah Effect is its comprehensive power: this manipulative technique or effect beats fascistic tyranny and violence as even Joseph Goebbels saw this: because one votes for it. And Britain weirdly voted for Brexit, and although I was sure that America would have elected Hilary Clinton, Trump was elected instead, not quite as the kick in the pants Žižek suggested it might be (although its financial benefits for Trump’s own investments do seem alarmingly plain). The choice was between one bad candidate and a worse candidate but this notion of electoral choice should not blind us to the long ago and still present reality of election manipulation and one does not need to imagine, though this may also be true, that we need the Russians to do this for us. This is old news in the US as political theorists happily reflect, meaning that no secret conspiracy theory is required. In fact, there’s a movie about it, not The Manchurian Candidate but rather a 2004 HBO documentary, Hacking Democracy, a documentary that should have gotten more attention than it did but won numerous awards. It can, I believe, be seen online, though thanks to the soft censorship of supposed privacy laws, not everything one can see in the US can be seen in the UK, much less in Germany (as I know from experience). Citizens got admirably involved in exposing the failure of an election, it got a blip of attention, and then, in effect, nothing was done so that, of course, the same thing continues to happen, with modern and yet more effective technology, ever more ‘undetectable’ the more enmeshed in our technology we become.
CB: One could argue that technology has been ‘hacking’ elections since at least the newspaper – which would suggest that there has never been an election where technology has not been embroiled in the outcome, since modern democracy is not older than newspapers. I’ve called our time the ‘Age of Distraction’ and the election is a clear example of why.
BB: Indeed, the culture of distraction, where politics advances in an oddly fractured twist on Clausewitz, literally proceeding via ‘other means’ just while we are concerned with other things, continues apace. Thus in the midst of unprecedented hurricanes and earthquakes we ignore the underpinnings of extreme weather as if geoengineering were only a Buck Rogers fantasy. The only philosopher who pays any attention to this is Peter Sloterdijk and although I try to teach this in my digital media class, the little concise book that I used just last year, Terror from the Air, is now out of print. Still the text from the third volume of Spheres has been available to scholars since 2009 as it is published in the fairly obvious journal title, Environmental Planning D: Society and Space, under the title “Airquake,” it may be of interest to some hence a link may be useful. Beyond these sad and more than inconvenient truths – be it those of hacking elections or hacking the weather – when it comes to the Hallelujah Effect, there is no way (and I hope there is no desire) to take the reference to music out of the discussion.
CB: Indeed not! The musical focus is precisely what drew me into your book, in so much as my time as a musician did not take me very far into music as a form, and I think mostly because I was demonstrably lacking the depth of talent shown by others I knew for whom music was a way of life, and I always manage to duck those things that I cannot excel at. And that nags at me, because I have felt for some time now that music’s power has ended up neutering itself. In the Sixties, music was the revolution. And then by 1977, we have the late and sadly missed Joe Strummer of The Clash admitting that there is already a move towards “turning rebellion into money.” Now, don’t get me wrong, music retains its power to bring together large crowds – but with an utter lack of social effect, beyond the gate receipts.
BB: Wow, that is an extraordinary point and my work researching and writing The Hallelujah Effect led me to similar insights. Tori Kelly’s performance at last year’s televised broadcast of the 2016 Emmy Awards is a good illustration of what we are talking about. What made, to an astonishing degree, Tori Kelly’s performance was what I call the ‘Hallelujah Effect,’ and not only because she happened to have been singing the late Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. Thus the video excerpt offers an object illustration of the ‘Hallelujah Effect.’ Tori Kelly herself recommends that one watch it and she posted it for just this reason on her Facebook page, which is literally (and this is no accident, unless you were tuned at that moment watching the broadcast and knew in advance in advance to do a video capture) the only place on the net where one can see more than a snippet or excerpt of her performance – with good monetized reason, and her Capitol records webpage also links to the video on her FB page. To see what blew the audience of viewers away, including such sophisticated viewers as Rolling Stone critics who wrote about it (among others), one has to see the video. At issue, driving the effect as such is not the song alone or the voice alone. The ‘Hallelujah Effect,’ however paradoxical this may appear, is not produced simply by singing “Hallelujah”, however beautifully or stunningly one does so, whether one is k.d. lang or John Cale or Jeff Buckley, or, to be sure and in the ‘hit’ of last year’s moment, Tori Kelly.
CB: I’m afraid I have no idea who Tori Kelly is, but I imagine this has something to do with the relatively recent bizarre situation whereby a newcomer singing a cover version of a song on television generates vastly more media attention than whosoever wrote and performs the original; shows of the form popularised by Simon Cowell...
BB: Yes, Tori Kelly has the ‘Voice,’ this is how she came to fame at 14, as Wiki will tell you (and I know you know what that means...) by successfully – this is true by definition or she wouldn’t have gained the fame in question – by posting YouTube videos of herself, and then through American Idol (albeit not by winning), and she gives a lovely performance of the song. But what makes it work, the effect of the effect, is that same priming you have admonished me for its insufficiency as a word. But priming is a complex phenomenon that works retrospectively as it were, coming into consciousness by the backstairs. It works with triggers not at all coincidentally the same term that politically sensitive educators like to use, along with marketing psychologists and ASMR artists (like asmr zeitgeist, SensorAdi ASMR, and see, e.g., Mickelous ASMR). Such triggers are not merely acoustic but also visual and for the visual one needs movement and, just as with the acoustic, one needs repetition. YouTube is a perfect medium for this, and Twitter features GIFs and little videos for fairly the same reason. Tori Kelly’s Emmy performance is not just Tori Kelly – it is the whole production: nothing is left to chance but it is brought together via music and video and ultimately broadcast production: once again, the videography behind the scenes, front and centre and completely coordinated with her singing; this is a little music video that takes us, her viewers, with her through and into Cohen’s song and into our own minds, our own associations — that is the beauty of priming: it’s both individually targeted and universal.
The dialogue concludes next week: Your Brain on Social Media