Walt Disney, Big Brother & Fake News

disney

“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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10 comments on “Walt Disney, Big Brother & Fake News

  1. Hence the stories of an earthly disaster that sends us back to the living style of the stone age and makes modern man.just to life without electricity – but they are only stories and we can’t go backwards. Don’t all civilisations crumble eventually?
    I always wanted an encyclopedia at my fingertips. not realising what came with it. As we age we recognise that truth is rare and many people do not even think life is precious.This is what will destroy humanity.

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  2. Tom Cummings says:

    I appreciated your concise summing up of the various thinkers who are the subject of this essay, Eric. And I appreciated even more your hopeful attitude in your closing paragraph. Over here in the US, we will be seeing if we have reached that “critical point in a downward spiral” in the elections coming up this November.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Eric Wayne says:

    I’m not entirely sure what your main point is, and lately I rather see every stance as partial and a buoy in a sea of arbitrariness and relativity.

    You see to think that recognition of “fake news” and Trump protesters reflect some sort of firmer toe-hold on reality. I don’t.

    The Malaysian government is trying to make “fake news” punishable by prison sentence. See the problem here? “Fake news” can be what Trump says, but it can also very easily be whatever a government or elite don’t want us to know that is designated “fake news”. Any counter-argument against the master narrative that’s being peddled can be dismissed or forbidden as “fake news”. Indeed, I haven’t been able to find a single news source that I trust, that I don’t see as biased and preaching an agenda.

    Trump is so easy to despise that merely protesting him is no sign of being engaged with reality, because it can be done from any number of largely ignorant belief systems. The “social justice” movement, for example, while ostensibly being for obvious greater goods, very frequently slips into some of the most egregious reductionist assumptions, including essentialism, biological determinism, stereotyping, and the rest.

    The “enlightenment” and the scientific outlook has many a problem (ex., Sam Harris convincing himself that we don’t have free will because science can’t prove it), but is a safer bet than radical relativism. Yes, Hiroshima wouldn’t be possible without the enlightenment, but the deploring of the weapon does NOT reflect the paramount of reason. Dropping the bomb was done by politics, not by reasoned philosophical argument. Hence, we can’t argue that war is a dramatic flaw of the enlightenment. It is a flaw of bad thinking in conjunction with science. The best arguments would have been against dropping the bomb, in which case it doesn’t make sense to blame rational argument for the misuse of science.

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  4. erikleo says:

    I agree with what you say Eric. Yes, Trump is an easy target and I should have perhaps used another example! What exactly is ‘essentialism’?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eric Wayne says:

      Essentialism is the idea that you have essential traits determined by your biology (race, gender, etc.). Here’s a snipped from Wikipedia:

      “In social and political debate, the critique of essentialism arose from post-modernist theory, according to which the essentialist view on gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, or other group characteristics is that they are fixed traits, discounting variation among group members as secondary.”

      It’s very similar to biological determinism, but we might say that biological determinism argues that who you are is fixed by your biology, whereas essentialsm assigns the traits you are supposed to be fixed with according to your biology (ex., women are supposed to be nurturing…).

      Both of these ideas are considered pernicious because deleterious traits are assigned to people. Nevertheless, the radical left employs both of these when it slaps adjectives in front of who someone is, and insists that group identity trumps individual identity.

      That’s my understanding, anyway.

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  5. theburningheart says:

    Well, there’s a general sense the world at large, as a political entity it’s heading somewhere it’s not the right direction, if there it’s such a thing as the existence of a guiding force, except our crass commercialism, and the profit of the few at the expense of the most, with little concern as to what the consequences of an unexamined life by the most, it’s taking us, on both sides.

    Regardless the lack of interest of the few, to have and objective beyond profit for themselves, with no ulterior dark motives, or designs, but to line their pockets selling us whatever.

    Well, on my last post I argue about the dangers of banality, that sort of unexamined inertia we follow, and like gravity it’s dragging us down, regardless of intentionally, or not.

    Like most accidents, they happen not out of a conscious act, or malice, but by the lack of it, by being absent minded, or with our attention off the road in front of us.

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  6. erikleo says:

    I agree; we seem to be iving in a quagmire of increasing banality. We can ‘cultivate our own garden’ as Voltaire suggested but this has an escapist head-in-the-sand flavour for some people! I try to be engaged in society in small ways and try to apply Buddhist principles to situations.

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  7. great post, and some very nice quotations you dug up there! I’ve been having very similiar thoughts for a few years now and am looking to write about this kind of meta narrative myself 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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