Walt Disney, Big Brother & Fake News

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“Minnie Mouse” in Tokyo-Disneyland, Japan

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno see progress as a kind of trap in which we ensnare ourselves. Discuss these thinkers with others who also see progress as a trap.

If an alien landed on Earth today it would observe that the most dominant life form on the planet has appendages growing out of its ears and that one hand has morphed into a non-organic shiny oblong.

The majority of people who spend much of their waking hours using smart-phones do not consider that they may have been enmeshed in a technological trap all in the name of progress. On the contrary, they believe they are exercising considerable freedom and that they are engaging in quality communication, even if that communication is with a computer algorithm.

This paradoxical nature of modernity – that global, technological progress also results in a form of oppression; a kind of cultural own goal – can be witnessed in many areas of life. Recently, to take one example, Facebook has been indicted for allowing personal information to be available to third parties. Another example is the phenomenon of ‘fake news.’ We live in an information overload era when it is extremely difficult to sort the truth from half-truths and lies. Donald Trump is, of course, the expert manipulator of facts to fit his own agenda. In his world facts are no longer what can be verified by intellectual investigation; they are whatever he wants them to be- he’s just like Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland. We may smile at his crassness but lots of people seem to believe what he says. The globalisation of mass media not only allows this but promotes such aberrations.

None of this is really new, however; George Orwell had his Newspeak, Ivan Illich had his Deschooling Society and Paulo Freire had his Pedagogy of the Oppressed. They, along with Horkheimer and Adorno, critiqued modernity in terms of how we all participate in our own oppression.

In 1947 Adorno and Horkheimer published Dialectic of Enlightenment which opens with an indictment of the West:

Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth radiates under the sign of triumphant disaster.”

They wonder how Kant’s ‘dare to find out’ – with its call to defeat ignorance – can also produce a world where we become cogs in a ‘megamachine’ and where genocide and exploitation are rampant.

It is foolhardy to select a single cause for cultural tendencies but it is undeniable that since the Enlightenment science and rationalism have been the engines for progress and imagination, ethics, intuition and subjectivity have been sidelined. The destructive forces of technology were devastatingly demonstrated in two world wars. Would it be possible to develop nuclear bombs, for instance, if empathy for fellow human beings and ethical considerations were paramount? The scientific project has resulted in more and more specialisation; a by-product of this tendency has been a kind of existential emptiness; a fragmentation of the psyche. Some commentators have referred to this as the ‘disenchantment of the world.’

When Adorno went to live in the USA he was appalled by the materialism and consumerism he witnessed. He called Walt Disney ‘the most dangerous man in America.’ This comment reveals more than mere cultural snobbery. He was rebelling against the postmodernist agenda of moral relativism and the commodification of everything including human beings. The proliferation of multinationals in the entertainment industry as well as in manufacturing and retail are part of that mega-structure of domination.

Adorno wrote:

Everything has a value only in so far as it can be exchanged, not in so far as it is something in itself.”

This would seem to echo Marx’s critique but Adorno wasn’t interested in class struggle as such. He foresaw how, for example, the media world would become such a force of domination; he criticised the art world in terms of the art object becoming a fetish and market forces destroying the genuine aesthetic experience of the art object.

Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) was another key figure who described media-culture as consumed, “by an effect of self referentiality.”

He goes as far as to say much of the media world no longer refers to any reality outside itself. ‘Simulations’ have replaced ‘normal’ reality, rather like in the film, The Matrix. In The Evil Demon of Images he writes:

It is the reference principle of images which must be doubted, this strategy by means of which they always appear to refer to a real world, to real objects, and to reproduce something which is logically, and chronologically, anterior to themselves. None of this is true. . . images precede the real to the extent that they invert the causal and logical order of the real and its reproduction.”

Frederic Jameson (Born 1934) goes further in that he does not hide his disgust with the superficiality of mass media/culture. As an example, he contrast the painting of Peasant Shoes by Vincent Van Gogh with Diamond Dust Shoes by Andy Warhol. While Van Gogh’s painting is embedded in a real, social context, Warhol’s, in contrast, is of shoes not derived from an actual context; they are merely decorative like a glossy advertising image. The method of screen printing is impersonal and in Jameson’s view reflects the anonymity of cosmopolitan life. What Warhol sees as a celebratory reflection of pop culture Jameson sees as a debasement of art. His critique should not be seen only in terms of art criticism; his point is much broader; that we are in danger of being swamped by flashy images and hyperreality. He thinks it important to have a historical perspective, and that our image-obsessed culture ignores historical context and is overtly ephemeral.

Like Adorno, he sees the Americanisation of the world as problematic:

For when we talk about the spreading power and influence of globalization, aren’t we really referring to the spreading economic and military might of the US? […] Looming behind the anxieties expressed here is a new version of what used to be called imperialism.”[From Globalisation and Political Strategy, New Left Review (2000)]

What we see, with these thinkers, is a common denominator: impersonal forces are at work which result in our oppression in some form or other.

It is difficult to see how we can resist all of these forces of insidious control. Perhaps the recent examples of ‘people-power’ (for example in Catalonia or the protests in the UK against Trump) show that not all people are content to remain passive. On the other hand, climate change, populist movements of exclusion worldwide, genocide, human trafficking, population displacement and fake news suggest that perhaps we have reached a critical point in a downward spiral. Perhaps things need to reach a nadir before they can rise up in a new form which pays responsible heed to a fragile Earth and our fragile lives.

References: Postmodernism, Glen Ward, Teach Yourself Books, 1997.

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Emerson, Woolf and The Ordinary

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Another of my essays for the MOOC course on Modernism. Title: Compare the approach to the ordinary in Emerson and Woolf.

The word ‘ordinary’ is somewhat Janus-faced. It can stand for the conventional, which Ralph Waldo Emerson (born 1803) raved against, and it can suggest the ‘unspoilt’ and ‘the unexceptional’ which Virginia Woolf took as her raw material. In this essay, I explore how Emerson and Woolf encompass some of these meanings.

The very title of one of Emerson’s essays, Self-Reliance, signals his revolt against convention. He writes,

Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times. . .

A paragraph later he wonders why we attach so much importance to royalty and the aristocracy. This is the familiar Enlightenment denunciation of privilege which came to a head in the American and French Revolutions.

Kingdom and lordship, power and estate, are a gaudier vocabulary than private John and Edward in a small house and common day’s work; but the things of life are the same to both. Why all this deference to Alfred and Scanderberg and Gustavus?

In other words we are all subject to birth, disease and death on the one hand and moments of happiness on the other hand. It makes little difference whether we are kings or commoners. (Although historians often point out that those born in poverty have had a huge handicap. Anyway, Emerson was attacking the upper end of the social strata in this paragraph.)

Emerson’s view of the innate goodness of humankind can also remind us of Rousseau’s ‘noble savage.’ He writes:

What is the aboriginal Self on which a universal reliance may be grounded? [. . .] We note this primary wisdom as intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions.

In calling upon us to be self-reliant Emerson is pointing to the opposite state of affairs; that we are mostly slaves of convention and the ideas of others. He describes us as weak figures in contrast to what exists in nature:

Man is timid and apologetic. He is no longer upright. He dares not say ‘I think, I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage […] These roses under my window make no reference to former roses. . . there is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.

Along with Kant, Hegel, Diderot and Voltaire, he recognises the challenge of thinking for oneself. Remember Kant’s Sapere aude! – ‘Dare to find out.’ In this sense, the ‘ordinary’ is conflated with consensus thinking; with the dead weight of historicism. Like Rousseau he wants us to have the courage to be ‘ahistorical’ – to act from the ‘divine spark’ within. (Yes, Emerson believed in God; albeit his was a pantheistic belief.)

And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motive of humanity, and has ventured to trust himself for a task-master.

He downgraded the tendency to seek virtue from past exemplars:

Whenever a mind is simple and receives divine wisdom, then old things pass away – means, teachers, texts, temples fall; it lives now and absorbs past and future into the present hour. [. . .] The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and majesty of the soul.

Virginia Woolf not only embraced ‘the ordinary’ but, like a Zen Master, elevated it to ‘the extraordinary.’ In one of her last diary entries, written in 1941, she more than hints at her technique of writing fiction:

I mark Henry James’ sentence – observe perpetually. Observe the outcome of age. Observe greed. Observe my own despondency. I find that it’s seven and I must cook dinner, haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.

Other lexical relatives of the word, ‘ordinary’ include, mundane, humdrum and routine. The repetitive, oppressive nature of life has been humorously portrayed in the film, Groundhog Day and more chillingly in Albert Camus’s essay, Sisyphus. Woolf’s evocation of the extraordinary amongst mundane, transient phenomena can be regarded as her revolt against the temporal and the tendency to ‘package’ experience as ‘this’ or ‘that.’ Woolf often achieves this expansive view of life by describing details in a decidedly mystical tone. Here in The Waves:

You hear me breathe. You see the beetle too carrying off a leaf on its back. It runs this way, then that way, so even your desire while you watch the beetle, to possess one single thing must waver, like the light in and out of the beach leaves. . .

One of the chief characteristics of modernism is its abandonment of religious faith and moral certainties. Lily, in To the Lighthouse, expresses it well:

The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.

In the novel Lily’s painting is symbolic of the aesthetic outlook; to make something permanent within the impermanent:

In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability.

To bring some of these themes up to date: to live without a ‘comfort blanket’ belief in God is not difficult today. But to live a life of self-reliance and scepticism towards all consensus thinking requires inner resolution and courage. To resist rampant consumerism and negotiate a path through fake news and outright lies tests one’s faith in humankind. What can we rely on, apart from our own moral compass amidst today’s cultural convulsions? In the ordinary course of life we too easily think that what we have is permanent; status, health, possessions, relationships and so on. It can come as a shock that nothing we have is permanent. Woolf portrays this aspect of contemporary life vividly in her novels.

Emerson had a bulkhead against modernist angst – he had a religious faith. Woolf, on the other hand is more representative of modernism’s uncertainties and shifting sands. Her ‘despondency’ ended in suicide.

The etymological roots of the word ‘ordinary’ include the verb ‘to order’ in the sense of to arrange. Woolf’s existential/secular independence resulted in a modest, limited solution to the challenges of existence. She selected and ‘ordered’ words in paragraphs to create a fictional world which reflected the fragmentary, subjective world revealed by science, psychology and politics in the twentieth century.

Urizen and Single Vision

I had some valuable feedback on my manuscript recently. I was taken to task on my apparent denunciation of reason. Here, I attempt to put my position, and Blake’s, in a more accurate light.

There is nothing wrong with the faculty of reason; many philosophers have singled it out as the defining attribute which makes us human. The only problem occurs when it is elevated or singled out as the only faculty or as the primary faculty whereby we attempt to find meaning in our lives. Many writers have revolted against this dominance of reason; writers such as Rousseau, Nietzsche, the Romantic poets of the nineteenth century, and, of course, Blake. Blake personified the ‘rationalising faculty’ as Urizen; the word itself is a clever play on ‘your reason’ and ‘your horizon.’ Blake wrote The Book of Urizen in which he shows how Urizen separates himself from the other faculties of Imagination, Sensation, Intuition and Emotion.

One of the characteristics of ‘reasoning’ is that it attempts to create a model of reality and hence there is always a gulf between the model and reality. The model can be very useful, as are maps, but the danger is that we can mistake the model for reality. This abstraction of reality was partly what Blake was getting at, especially in his abhorrence of Locke, Hume and Bacon.

We can more accurately talk of ‘rationalism’ as a paradigm; a way of approaching reality.

Scott Preston, in his brilliant blog, The Chrysalis, talks of perspectivism. When the early Renaissance artists worked out how to represent perspective in two dimensions they also represented a major shift in outlook. The view of reality was now ‘a point of view’ – a view limited to one position in space (and time) and a view presented to the physical eye looking out at the world. Hitherto, in Byzantine art for example, the picture was not a representation of what the eye saw in one time-bound ‘view.’ Painting then was more ‘a composite’ of what the artist knew and felt and was a representation of Christian mythology. Scott Preston uses this analogy of painting to show how linear, logical thinking has dominated western culture for the last 500 years. He relates it to Blake’s Single Vision and Newton’s Sleep.

What, then is the solution; how can we escape from this restricted view? I don’t think there is a single answer to this – Blake’s prophetic books offer a detailed solution where contraries co-exist. On an individual level we can be more self-aware and not believe that we are our thoughts. We can cultivate an aesthetic appreciation of reality and integrate imagination, intuition, feeling, sensation and thought. Meditation is a method whereby the ‘hidden’ rejected parts of the psyche can come into the open; where the Beast can transform into Beauty.

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The image which I have copied in pen is clearly of someone in torment; Blake has different versions; some have the Urizen-figure surrounded by flames. I find this aspect of the suffering Urizen very relevant. Those of us who struggle with mental health issues know how the mind can imprison us with its relentless ‘washing machine’ of churning thoughts. Blake, too, sees us all as being in exile; we have forgotten our original faces. We have fallen into self-division; this manifests in many ways: body-mind dualism, thought-feeling conflicts, individualism-community tensions, right action conundrums and so on.

Looking at this image, say for a few minutes, is itself a way of by-passing, or tricking, our rationalising mind. Its form and colour may speak to you directly – this is the power of art: it is not about words. I invite you do the same with all of Blake’s work which can be found here: http://www.blakearchive.org

Blake’s view of how we use the senses is fundamental. He saw the error of empiricists such as John Locke who thought that truth could be found via the evidence of the senses. This was a too literal and restricted approach. Blake famously wrote that ‘if the doors of perception were cleansed, then everything would appear as it is, infinite.’ This is very similar to the Buddhist idea of observing the contents of the mind and letting the thoughts and feelings settle until the mind becomes like a mirror. Both Blake and Buddhism see our ordinary state of consciousness as being, potentially, problematic. It too readily distorts reality. Both, also, would agree that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with our minds, other than the conditioning (mainly) from parents, teachers and institutions. Blake’s solution is complex and subtle but suffice it to say that he sees us as ‘spiritual beings’ and that we need to use what he terms Imagination or the Poetic Genius to free ourselves from the domination of Urizen.

I don’t want to enlarge on Blake’s mythical-psychological world here; I just invite you to gaze on poor Urizen and ask yourselves, ‘How did he get to be like this?’ and ‘Do I ever feel like this?’