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.

Vincent

paintings-vincent-van-gogh-13336296-1036-840

“What a Strange Thing Touch Is.”

Like a saint’s relics

they’re displayed

for us to venerate

out of reach under glass

palettes, paints & brushes.

Yellowing paper ages

his urgent hand

fading ink leaks

his lifeblood along

the sun’s certain circuit.

*                  *                      *

Like a jailer confiscating blades

Peyron locked away his deadly paints

and the sun’s white glare.

*               *                  *                     *

If we could we’d keep

his fierce sun

beating in our breasts.

The quote above is from one of his many letters to Theo his brother. He is talking about the touch of his brush on the canvas but could just as well be thinking of human touch. When he was confined in an asylum he would swallow oil paint during episodes of  emotional turmoil. Various suggestions have been offered to identify the exact nature of his mental illness ranging from epilepsy to bipolar.

Gauguin’s Soliloquy

aftergauguin

Gauguin’s Soliloquy – after Robert Browning

Gr-r-r – there goes my heart’s torment,
take your damn easel for a walk, do –
if hatred could kill men, Vincent,
God’s blood, would mine not kill you!
What? You’re going to pick sunflowers –
well, don’t bring them back to the sink,
I don’t want you painting here for hours.

Well, thank God, that lunatic’s gone –
he not only paints in oils but eats the stuff too!
Last night he went for me with a razor –
he slashed a canvas which I had to mend with glue.
He can only paint what’s in front of him;
I use my imagination as well as chrome yellow
while he complains of being a victim!

I expect you know he sponges off his brother?
Poor Theo has to send canvas and paints,
Vincent spends half the money on gin,
it’s enough to try the patience of saints,
I don’t think I can stand it much longer:
I’m in danger of committing a mortal sin
I don’t want to end up in the slammer.

Ah, I know what I’ll do, if you please,
I’ll pack up my things while he’s out –
I’ve always wanted to go to the South Seas;
the hot sun will be good for my gout!
Yes, I’ll paint native Tahitians – after they undress.
I’ll become famous for my Gardens of Eden
while mad, bad Vincent will die—penni-less!

The starting point for this was Robert Browning’s Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister from which you will see I’ve filtched the first two lines. Browning may be thought old fashioned and ‘Victorian’ but his trade mark dramatic monologues still feel original and alive to me.

It is well known that Van Gogh and Gauguin shared a house – the Yellow House in Arles – for a while and wondered about setting up an artists’ colony. The two artists were pretty temperamental characters and predictably they soon got on each others nerves!

Gauguin wrote a biased account of their time together which blames Vincent for everything that went wrong. As usual reality was more complicated. The stereotypical ‘crazy artist’  gets in the way of the actual complexities. I’ve always warmed more to Van Gogh’s paintings (than Gauguin’s ) and by reading his Letters, realised while he must have been hell to live with, he was  well- read, a visionary like Blake, intellectually and spiritually inquisitive and sensitive to suffering – but of course mentally unstable. There are many theories about this latter point. One of the more recent biographies is The Love of Many Things by David Sweetman which I have yet to read (apart from dipping into it). I would also like some day to visit the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

The incidents in the poem are based on real events.

Woodland

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Vincent Van Gogh was the first artist  I made an emotional connection with, in my teens. When I was in my early twenties I read his Letters and realised that he was a well read, thoughful artist far from the popular notion of the mad artist! I never tried to copy his style but this drawing,  which I must have done over twenty years ago, shows some influence in the mark-making. If you haven’t read the diaries I highly recommend them. There’s an edited version produced by Fontana, The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Ed by Mark Roskill. They are among the most moving testament of any artist I’ve read about.