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The Miracle of Context

Image Source: Minds . Can you recognize  the truth, if it's taken out of context? The Internet has lately become Pandora's Box, spilling out its contents to those who dare to look  (or look again - or again ). Images Source: Hello! Magazine / Getty . Last week, a friend dismissed my claim that people want to see the truth. He thinks people are not interested in abstracts like 'truth.' They just want to get on with their lives. Whether they want the truth or not, the signs and symbols of truth are on the move. Conversations float around and skim the surface. Another friend wondered out loud tonight, "It feels like the virus is more of a meme than anything else." In the wake of the US inauguration, disinformation, strange rumours, and weird info dumps are circulating online. Everything feels off, but bizarrely connected. There is something bigger at play. Image Source: 4chan ; also here . Truth and fiction overlap. There is no way to drill down to bedrock. It

Politics, Ideology and the Technosphere 3: Autobiography, Social Media and the Banality of Revolution

The Shawinigan Handshake (1996). Image Source: Wiki.

In 1996, the Prime Minister of Canada, Jean Chrétien, strangled an anti-poverty protester Bill Clennett, who got in his way at a rally. Chrétien hails from Shawinigan, Quebec, and his stranglehold became known as the 'Shawinigan Handshake.' Oddly, this display endeared Chrétien to the Canadian public, because it made him look manly and tough.

It also made him seem accessible, like a character down at the pub, who is a known quantity in the local town. By 2001, Chrétien had been prime minister for eight years and he had two more years to go before he would finally step down. There was a world-weariness about his government. Perhaps that world-weariness made him seem even more accessible.

At that time, Canadian visual artist Chris Lloyd began sending Chrétien dozens of e-mails about Lloyd's daily life. The PM never answered, of course, and the e-mails were collected and self-published in a several volumes, including a 2002 book entitled, Dear PM 2002 vol. 2. A lone copy is currently up for sale on Amazon for 80 dollars. You can also read excerpts above at Google Books. Here is a sample of the kind of messages Lloyd sent to Chrétien:
"Dear Mr. Chrétien, ...  
Woke up this morning to a phone call from Judy, which was nice. She is still expecting to sabotage her current relationship somehow. Why is it that some people don't accept happiness? Even if it may only be short-term, one can never really know. Some people find true love immediately, or work at it to make it happen, and some never find it, so I think people should just appreciate the time they have together and not force things too much. Aaah, who am I to give advice on the matter to anyone?
Bumped into Jacob on my way to the bus stop this morning. He is broke, so I walked downtown with him, rather than wait for the bus. Had hoped to get a lot of paperwork done today, as the building is usually quiet on Mondays, but it didn't happen. Dan was already there when I arrived, and he spent most of the day organizing the junk in the basement."
And so on. Lloyd's experiment reveals how true stories, autobiographies, and real life accounts became genres which chimed with Millennial sensibilities. Similar memoirs, like David Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), were suddenly hot.

Lloyd's work also makes me think of Karl Ove Knausgård's six volume saga about his life, Min Kamp (My Struggle; 2009-2011), in which Knausgård accounted every moment of his life, starting with his descent through the birth canal of his mother's vagina in 1968.

Knausgård revealed every possible detail - the boring and compromising alike - about his family and everyone who had ever met him; and he left most names unchanged. He gained notoriety for the autobiographical "banalities and humiliations of his life." The New Yorker wanted to know why Knausgård named his autobiography after Hitler's autobiography. His answer was revealing. His preoccupation with personal reality and personal details eradicated the other:
"When Knausgaard has addressed the topic of Hitler directly, he has argued that a frightening characteristic that connects Mein Kampf to the writings of Anders Breivik, the perpetrator of the 2011 Utøya massacre (which Knausgaard writes about in Book Six), is that in the mind behind both texts there seems to be an 'I' and a 'we' but no 'you,' reflecting a dangerous blindness that allowed an otherwise impossible evil."
In other words, the focus of the writing about the minutiae of reality becomes me-me-me. There is no 'you' who really matters. 'Your' role is to identify with and appreciate the power of the narrative as a supplicant, a victim, a member of the audience, or a discussed subject. The me-narrative of reality makes 'me' more important than 'you.'

This narrative dynamic tells us something about why Hitler's revolutionary statement came in the form of autobiography and why that choice of genre was so diabolically clever. Autobiography can embody narcissism of the author and can awake narcissism in the reader. There may be a disarming appeal in the author's audacity to presume that he is so important as to merit our attention. The reader's identification with the author's professed values and ideology are secondary. What comes first is the experience of being charmed by a narcissist who will tell you why the tiny details of his life matter to you. Suddenly, he convinces you that he matters; and because he's chosen to draw you in to his confidence, now you matter too. The fact that you have just become responsible for this sleight of hand and will later be blamed for identifying with the narrator is your future problem.

Knausgård gained acclaim for his effort, even if critics were not sure why they liked it so much, especially when he named his book for Hitler's autobiography. By contrast, Chris Lloyd did not gain notice for his tamer, earlier Canadian effort. Dear PM was obviously an experiment with the then-still-newish medium of e-mail and the book predated social media. Lloyd's work is still of interest for its subtle foreshadowing of the way social media would destabilize the mainstream political order.

With e-mail and social media, the little person's perspective of the world suddenly became as broadcast-worthy as that of great officials. This parity in communication became a leveling force. It exposed the fragile position of celebrities, authorities, experts and leaders. Technology made strongmen accessible. When your prime minister is instantly reachable, he or she becomes immediately accountable. There is no removed space between the glamour of authority, the people exercising that authority, and those on whom the authority is exerted.

There is something strangely revolutionary and Kafkaesque about being able to topple governments by telling the emperor what you ate for breakfast. Even if the emperor doesn't answer, he is a silent partner in a ridiculous, relentless dialogue.

It took some time for mainstream authorities to understand that the banality of personal opinion had revolutionary potential. The reasons why Hitler's autobiography captivated so many Germans remained elusive to post-war critics. The humdrum aspects of daily life were only later exposed as malevolent by Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), who stated that evil was banal.

The phrase refers to Arendt's coverage of the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962) in Jerusalem in 1961. Eichmann, one of the major architects of the Holocaust, defended his position by saying the genocide came about because he was just putting one foot in front of the other. There he was, following the laws of his land, following orders, doing his job, hoping for a promotion. What blame was there in that? He appeared not to understand the enormity of his crimes and showed no remorse, nor any sense of personal responsibility. Arendt reflected:
"[W]hen I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to a phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial. Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been farther from his mind than to determine with Richard III 'to prove a villain.' Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all… He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing… It was sheer thoughtlessness—something by no means identical with stupidity—that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period. And if this is 'banal' and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, this is still far from calling it commonplace… That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in man—that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem."
Contrary to the current mainstream fear of nationalism as the driving force of fascism, Eichmann did not present himself as a frothing nationalist. Rather, genocide was a function of every day details. He was working in a system. The system wanted him to do things. He was a grey man, whose conscience was progressively dissolved by minutiae.

Since that time, the technosphere has transformed banal minutiae into monuments to a petty narcissism. That narcissism has become weirdly blameless and transparent. After all, what's wrong with posting what you ate at the restaurant on Instagram? It matters, doesn't it? It matters only because you can do it, and because it matters to you. These social media moments change the whole fabric of authoritative reality. They challenge who is qualified, conscious, and conscientious enough to make aesthetic and moral statements about daily life.

With the rise of social media, the banalities of small people became tiny, branded fiefdoms. If someone comes up with something original or accessible, they are just as potentially newsworthy as a speech that day at the UN.

This was how we moved from the historical horror of the Nazi state - in which grey men claimed that they acted according the humdrum of daily action - to the current horror of the technosphere, a state in which we need only talk about the humdrum of daily action and it begins to destabilize reality. It destroys authoritative systems, as the Chinese say, through death by a thousand cuts.

A tidal wave of banal data has become a mechanized art form, a non-fictional interactive informational experience. It invades public space and private space. It doesn't stop. It can't be vetted. If you censor it, it goes viral. Eradicate it on one platform, and ten new platforms pop up to feature it. Shake your fist at it, call it fake, and it grows ten times in strength and size. If you are threatened by it, it invalidates you. Seek to destroy it, and you will look illegitimate.

This change in politics and the new ideology of the Internet is not just about big data. It is not simply the massive volume of information on social media that creates this result. Social media, driven by billions of tiny, inflated egos, creates a tsunami of experiences which locate responsibility elsewhere. Responsibility is placed at the doorstep of the audience, the reader, the receiver, the object of discussion. It is the silenced other who becomes responsible for whatever is wrong, whether that other is a vulnerable minority group, a family member, a world leader, or the reader.

See my posts on the Technosphere on this blog.

See my related posts on the Technosphere and politics at Histories of Things to Come.


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