Curry Chandler

Curry Chandler is a writer, researcher, and independent scholar working in the field of communication and media studies. His writing on media theory and policy has been published in the popular press as well as academic journals. Curry approaches the study of communication from a distinctly critical perspective, and with a commitment to addressing inequality in power relations. The scope of his research activity includes media ecology, political economy, and the critique of ideology.

Curry is a graduate student in the Communication Department at the University of Pittsburgh, having previously earned degrees from Pepperdine University and the University of Central Florida.

Filtering by Tag: zizek

Chomsky on Snowden, Žižek on Buddhism, Fuchs on social media and the public sphere

These exposures lead us to inquire into state policy more generally and the factors that drive it. The received standard version is that the primary goal of policy is security and defense against enemies.

The doctrine at once suggests a few questions: security for whom, and defense against which enemies? The answers are highlighted dramatically by the Snowden revelations.

Policy must assure the security of state authority and concentrations of domestic power, defending them from a frightening enemy: the domestic population, which can become a great danger if not controlled.

 

Social media has become a key term in Media and Communication Studies and public discourse for characterising platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia, LinkedIn, Wordpress, Blogspot, Weibo, Pinterest, Foursquare and Tumblr. This lecture discusses the role of the concept of the public sphere for understanding social media critically. It argues against an idealistic interpretation of Habermas and for a cultural-materialist understanding of the public sphere concept that is grounded in political economy. It sets out that Habermas’ original notion should best be understood as a method of immanent critique that critically scrutinises limits of the media and culture grounded in power relations and political economy. It introduces a theoretical model of public service media that it uses as foundation for identifying three antagonisms of the contemporary social media sphere in the realms of the economy, the state and civil society. It concludes that these limits can only be overcome if the colonisation of the social media lifeworld is countered politically so that social media and the Internet become public service and commons-based media.

Žižek on post-U.S. order, Harvey on Piketty, Rushkoff's new job and doc

The "American century" is over, and we have entered a period in which multiple centres of global capitalism have been forming. In the US, Europe, China and maybe Latin America, too, capitalist systems have developed with specific twists: the US stands for neoliberal capitalism, Europe for what remains of the welfare state, China for authoritarian capitalism, Latin America for populist capitalism. After the attempt by the US to impose itself as the sole superpower – the universal policeman – failed, there is now the need to establish the rules of interaction between these local centres as regards their conflicting interests.

In politics, age-old fixations, and particular, substantial ethnic, religious and cultural identities, have returned with a vengeance. Our predicament today is defined by this tension: the global free circulation of commodities is accompanied by growing separations in the social sphere. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the global market, new walls have begun emerging everywhere, separating peoples and their cultures. Perhaps the very survival of humanity depends on resolving this tension.

  • Thomas Piketty's book Capital in the 21st Century has received widespread media attention, and enjoyed so much popular success that at times Amazon has been sold out of copies. It seems natural then that David Harvey, reigning champion of Marx's Capital in the 21st century would comment on the work, which he has now done on his web site:

The book has often been presented as a twenty-first century substitute for Karl Marx’s nineteenth century work of the same title. Piketty actually denies this was his intention, which is just as well since his is not a book about capital at all. It does not tell us why the crash of 2008 occurred and why it is taking so long for so many people to get out from under the dual burdens of prolonged unemployment and millions of houses lost to foreclosure. It does not help us understand why growth is currently so sluggish in the US as opposed to China and why Europe is locked down in a politics of austerity and an economy of stagnation. What Piketty does show statistically (and we should be indebted to him and his colleagues for this) is that capital has tended throughout its history to produce ever-greater levels of inequality. This is, for many of us, hardly news. It was, moreover, exactly Marx’s theoretical conclusion in Volume One of his version of Capital. Piketty fails to note this, which is not surprising since he has since claimed, in the face of accusations in the right wing press that he is a Marxist in disguise, not to have read Marx’s Capital.

[...]

There is, however, a central difficulty with Piketty’s argument. It rests on a mistaken definition of capital. Capital is a process not a thing. It is a process of circulation in which money is used to make more money often, but not exclusively through the exploitation of labor power.

  • At the 2012 Media Ecology conference in Manhattan I heard Douglas Rushkoff explain that he had stopped teaching classes at NYU because the department was not letting him teach a sufficient number of hours, all while using his likeness on program brochures. Well, Rushkoff has just been appointed to his first full-time academic post. Media Bistro reported CUNY's announcement :

Beginning this fall at CUNY’s Queens College, students can work their way towards an MA in Media Studies. Set to mold the curriculum is an expert responsible for terms such as “viral media” and “social currency.”

  • Lastly, this news made me realize that I completely missed Rushkoff's new Frontline special that premiered in February: Generation Like, which is available on the Frontline web site.

Mike Gane interview: Baudrillard, academia, more

  • The upcoming issue of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies features an interview with Baudrillard scholar Mike Gane. The interview touches upon a variety of topics, including Gane's interactions with Baudrillard, media coverage of Margaret Thatcher's death, and hypothesizing what Baudrillard would be writing about were he alive today:

One could ‘see’ the specific things Baudrillard would have picked up – extreme phenomena like sovereign debt. Today he would be writing on fracking, drones, etc.

Gane also addresses the present state of academia:

The essential point is that the whole educational experience has changed, and the student has become oriented to enterprise, and to developing, accumulating, human capital. The student gets used to appraising the lecturer’s performance just as the lecturer grades the student, and the Sunday Times grades the university. So, all the discussion about declining standards focuses on the wrong issue.  What has happened is a transformation of individualism, not towards a new freedom in the classical liberal sense, but towards a new individual who builds up capital and exploits this competitively. The university staff members are equally thrown into a competitive game network, where to outperform others is essential to survival. Almost everything is assessed and ranked with a degree of Kafkaesque bureaucratisation that is hardly believable. Whereas the system of 40 years ago was simple and relaxed, with liberal values, and within it there were known traditional hierarchies, today it is hyper-bureaucratised and hyper-legalised and the hierarchies have changed and keep changing.   Thus to understand what has happened it is essential to see that neoliberalism does not diminish the action of the state; it avoids direct state intervention but only to insert new mechanisms and values insidiously where none existed before: for example, in Britain it is only now, forty years after the initial entry of neoliberalism, that an enterprise element is being required on each degree course, and that an enterprise element is to be counted within the work profile of academics. And these new mechanisms do not stand still; the system is in constant movement, as if in permanent crisis. This why Baudrillard, and others like Žižek, have described this as a new totalitarianism which works not by imposing a system of commands but rather a game framework into which the individual is absorbed and has to adapt at a moment’s notice.

  • In a recent Atlantic article Ian Bogost considered the McRib sandwich through the lens of Lacanian psychoanalysis. The aphoristic ending of the essay recalls the Baudrillardian turn on the function of Disneyland and prisons:

Yet, the McRib’s perversity is not a defect, but a feature. The purpose of the McRib is to make the McNugget seem normal.

Ender's Game analyzed, the Stanley Parable explored, Political Economy of zombies, semiotics of Twitter, much more

It's been a long time since the last update (what happened to October?), so this post is extra long in an attempt to catch up.

In a world in which interplanetary conflicts play out on screens, the government needs commanders who will never shrug off their campaigns as merely “virtual.” These same commanders must feel the stakes of their simulated battles to be as high as actual warfare (because, of course, they are). Card’s book makes the nostalgic claim that children are useful because they are innocent. Hood’s movie leaves nostalgia by the roadside, making the more complex assertion that they are useful because of their unique socialization to be intimately involved with, rather than detached from, simulations.

  • In the ongoing discourse about games criticism and its relation to film reviews, Bob Chipman's latest Big Picture post uses his own review of the Ender's Game film as an entry point for a breathless treatise on criticism. The video presents a concise and nuanced overview of arts criticism, from the classical era through film reviews as consumer reports up to the very much in-flux conceptions of games criticism.  Personally I find this video sub-genre (where spoken content is crammed into a Tommy gun barrage of word bullets so that the narrator can convey a lot of information in a short running time) irritating and mostly worthless, since the verbal information is being presented faster than the listener can really process it. It reminds me of Film Crit Hulk, someone who writes excellent essays with obvious insight into filmmaking, but whose aesthetic choice (or "gimmick") to write in all caps is often a distraction from the content and a deterrent to readers. Film Crit Hulk has of course addressed this issue and explained the rationale for this choice, but considering that his more recent articles have dropped the third-person "Hulk speak"  writing style the all caps seems to be played out. Nevertheless, I'm sharing the video because Mr. Chipman makes a lot of interesting points, particularly regarding the cultural contexts for the various forms of criticism. Just remember to breathe deeply and monitor your heart rate while watching.

  • This video from Satchbag's Goods is ostensibly a review ofHotline Miami, but develops into a discussion of art movements and Kanye West:

  • This short interview with Slavoj Žižek in New York magazine continues a trend I've noticed since Pervert's Guide to Ideology has been releasing, wherein writers interviewing Žižek feel compelled to include themselves and their reactions to/interactions with Žižek into their article. Something about a Žižek encounter brings out the gonzo in journalists. The NY mag piece is also notable for this succinct positioning of Žižek's contribution to critical theory:

Žižek, after all, the ­Yugoslav-born, Ljubljana-based academic and Hegelian; mascot of the Occupy movement, critic of the Occupy movement; and former Slovenian presidential candidate, whose most infamous contribution to intellectual history remains his redefinition of ideology from a Marxist false consciousness to a Freudian-Lacanian projection of the unconscious. Translation: To Žižek, all politics—from communist to social-democratic—are formed not by deliberate principles of freedom, or equality, but by expressions of repressed desires—shame, guilt, sexual insecurity. We’re convinced we’re drawing conclusions from an interpretable world when we’re actually just suffering involuntary psychic fantasies.

Following the development of the environment on the team's blog you can see some of the gaps between what data was deemed noteworthy or worth recording in the seventeenth century and the level of detail we now expect in maps and other infographics. For example, the team struggled to pinpoint the exact location on Pudding Lane of the bakery where the Great Fire of London is thought to have originated and so just ended up placing it halfway along.

  • Stephen Totilo reviewed the new pirate-themed Assassin's Creed game for the New York Times. I haven't played the game, but I love that the sections of the game set in the present day have shifted from the standard global conspiracy tropes seen in the earlier installments to postmodern self-referential and meta-fictional framing:

Curiously, a new character is emerging in the series: Ubisoft itself, presented mostly in the form of self-parody in the guise of a fictional video game company, Abstergo Entertainment. We can play small sections as a developer in Abstergo’s Montreal headquarters. Our job is to help turn Kenway’s life — mined through DNA-sniffing gadgetry — into a mass-market video game adventure. We can also read management’s emails. The team debates whether games of this type could sell well if they focused more on peaceful, uplifting moments of humanity. Conflict is needed, someone argues. Violence sells.

It turns out that Abstergo is also a front for the villainous Templars, who search for history’s secrets when not creating entertainment to numb the population. In these sections, Ubisoft almost too cheekily aligns itself with the bad guys and justifies its inevitable 2015 Assassin’s Creed, set during yet another violent moment in world history.

  • Speaking of postmodern, self-referential, meta-fictional video games: The Stanley Parable was released late last month. There has already been a bevy of analysis written about the game, but I am waiting for the Mac release to play the game and doing my best to avoid spoilers in the meantime. Brenna Hillier's post at VG24/7 is spoiler free (assuming you are at least familiar with the games premise, or its original incarnation as a Half Life mod), and calls The Stanley parable "a reaction against, commentary upon, critique and celebration of narrative-driven game design":

The Stanley Parable wants you to think about it. The Stanley Parable, despite its very limited inputs (you can’t even jump, and very few objects are interactive) looks at those parts of first-person gaming that are least easy to design for – exploration and messing with the game’s engine – and foregrounds them. It takes the very limitations of traditional gaming narratives and uses them to ruthlessly expose their own flaws.

Roy’s research focus prior to founding Bluefin, and continued interest while running the company, has to do with how both artificial and human intelligences learn language. In studying this process, he determined that the most important factor in meaning making was the interaction between human beings: non one learns language in a vacuum, after all. That lesson helped inform his work at Twitter, which started with mapping the connection between social network activity and live broadcast television.

Aspiring to cinematic qualities is not bad in an of itself, nor do I mean to shame fellow game writers, but developers and their attendant press tend to be myopic in their point of view, both figuratively and literally. If we continually view videogames through a monocular lens, we miss much of their potential. And moreover, we begin to use ‘cinematic’ reflexively without taking the time to explain what the hell that word means.

Metaphor is a powerful tool. Thinking videogames through other media can reframe our expectations of what games can do, challenge our design habits, and reconfigure our critical vocabularies. To crib a quote from Andy Warhol, we get ‘a new idea, a new look, a new sex, a new pair of underwear.’ And as I hinted before, it turns out that fashion and videogames have some uncanny similarities.

Zombies started their life in the Hollywood of the 1930s and ‘40s as simplistic stand-ins for racist xenophobia. Post-millennial zombies have been hot-rodded by Danny Boyle and made into a subversive form of utopia. That grim utopianism was globalized by Max Brooks, and now Brad Pitt and his partners are working to transform it into a global franchise. But if zombies are to stay relevant, it will rely on the shambling monsters' ability to stay subversive – and real subversive shocks and terror are not dystopian. They are utopian.

Ironically, our bodies now must make physical contact with devices dictating access to the real; Apple’s Touch ID sensor can discern for the most part if we are actually alive. This way, we don’t end up trying to find our stolen fingers on the black market, or prevent others from 3D scanning them to gain access to our lives.

This is a monumental shift from when Apple released its first iPhone just six years ago. It’s a touchy subject: fingerprinting authentication means we confer our trust in an inanimate object to manage our animate selves - our biology is verified, digitised, encrypted, as they are handed over to our devices.

Can you really buy heroin on the Web as easily as you might purchase the latest best-seller from Amazon? Not exactly, but as the FBI explained in its complaint, it wasn't exactly rocket science, thanks to Tor and some bitcoins. Here's a rundown of how Silk Road worked before the feds swooped in.

  • Henry Jenkins posted the transcript of an interview with Mark J.P. Wolf. The theme of the discussion is "imaginary worlds," and they touch upon the narratology vs. ludology conflict in gaming:

The interactivity vs. storytelling debate is really a question of the author saying either “You choose” (interaction) or “I choose” (storytelling) regarding the events experienced; it can be all of one or all of the other, or some of each to varying degrees; and even when the author says “You choose”, you are still choosing from a set of options chosen by the author.  So it’s not just a question of how many choices you make, but how many options there are per choice.  Immersion, however, is a different issue, I think, which does not always rely on choice (such as immersive novels), unless you want to count “Continue reading” and “Stop reading” as two options you are constantly asked to choose between.

Inside Korea's gaming culture, virtual worlds and economic modeling, Hollywood's Summer of Doom continued, and more

  • I've long been fascinated by the gaming culture in South Korea, and Tom Massey has written a great feature piece for Eurogamer titled Seoul Caliber: Inside Korea's Gaming Culture. From this westerner's perspective, having never visited Korea, the article reads almost more like cyberpunk fiction than games journalism:

Not quite as ubiquitous, but still extremely common, are PC Bangs: LAN gaming hangouts where 1000 Won nets you an hour of multiplayer catharsis. In Gangnam's Maxzone, overhead fans rotate at Apocalypse Now speed, slicing cigarette smoke as it snakes through the blades. Korea's own NCSoft, whose European base is but a stone's throw from the Eurogamer offices, is currently going strong with its latest MMO, Blade & Soul.

"It's relaxing," says Min-Su, sipping a Milkis purchased from the wall-mounted vending machine. "And dangerous," he adds. "It's easy to lose track of time playing these games, especially when you have so much invested in them. I'm always thinking about achieving the next level or taking on a quick quest to try to obtain a weapon, and the next thing I know I've been here for half the day."

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kue_gd8DneU&w=420&h=315]

Creation and simulation in virtual worlds appear to offer the best domain to test the new ideas required to tackle the very real problems of depravation, inequality, unemployment, and poverty that exist in national economies. On that note the need to see our socioeconomic institutions for the games that they really are seems even more poignant.

In the words of Vili Lehdonvirta, a leading scholar in virtual goods and currencies, the suffering we see today is “not some consequence of natural or physical law” it instead “is a result of the way we play these games.”

The global economy seems to be bifurcating into a rich/tech track and a poor/non-tech track, not least because new technology will increasingly destroy/replace old non-tech jobs. (Yes, global. Foxconn is already replacing Chinese employees with one million robots.) So far so fairly non-controversial.

The big thorny question is this: is technology destroying jobs faster than it creates them?

[...]

We live in an era of rapid exponential growth in technological capabilities. (Which may finally be slowing down, true, but that’s an issue for decades hence.) If you’re talking about the economic effects of technology in the 1980s, much less the 1930s or the nineteenth century, as if it has any relevance whatsoever to today’s situation, then you do not understand exponential growth. The present changes so much faster that the past is no guide at all; the difference is qualitative, not just quantitative. It’s like comparing a leisurely walk to relativistic speeds.

We begin with a love story--from a man who unwittingly fell in love with a chatbot on an online dating site. Then, we encounter a robot therapist whose inventor became so unnerved by its success that he pulled the plug. And we talk to the man who coded Cleverbot, a software program that learns from every new line of conversation it receives...and that's chatting with more than 3 million humans each month. Then, five intrepid kids help us test a hypothesis about a toy designed to push our buttons, and play on our human empathy. And we meet a robot built to be so sentient that its creators hope it will one day have a consciousness, and a life, all its own.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHCwaaactyY&w=420&h=315]

"These outages are absolutely going to continue," said Neil MacDonald, a fellow at technology research firm Gartner. "There has been an explosion in data across all types of enterprises. The complexity of the systems created to support big data is beyond the understanding of a single person and they also fail in ways that are beyond the comprehension of a single person."

From high volume securities trading to the explosion in social media and the online consumption of entertainment, the amount of data being carried globally over the private networks, such as stock exchanges, and the public internet is placing unprecedented strain on websites and on the networks that connect them.

What I want is systems that have intrinsic rewards; that are disciplines similar to drawing or playing a musical instrument. I want systems which are their own reward.

What videogames almost always give me instead are labor that I must perform for an extrinsic reward. I want to convince you that not only is this not what I want, this isn’t really what anyone wants.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GpO76SkpaWQ&w=560&h=315]

This 'celebrification' is enlivening making games and giving players role models, drawing more people in to development, especially indie and auteured games. This shift is proving more prosperous than any Skillset-accredited course or government pot could ever hope for. We are making men sitting in pants at their laptops for 12 hours a day as glamorous as it could be.

Creating luminaries will lead to all the benefits that more people in games can bring: a bigger and brighter community, plus new and fresh talent making exciting games. However, celebritydom demands storms, turmoil and gossip.

Spielberg's theory is essentially that a studio will eventually go under after it releases five or six bombs in a row. The reason: budgets have become so gigantic. And, indeed, this summer has been full of movies with giant budgets and modest grosses, all of which has elicited hand-wringing about financial losses, the lack of a quality product (another post-apocalyptic thriller? more superheroes?), and a possible connection between the two. There has been some hope that Hollywood's troubles will lead to a rethinking of how movies get made, and which movies get greenlit by studio executives. But a close look at this summer's grosses suggest a more worrisome possibility: that the studios will become more conservative and even less creative.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F4mDNMSntlA&w=420&h=315]

Rushkoff on Manning verdict, Chomsky/Žižek on NSA leaks, looking for McLuhan in Afghanistan

We are just beginning to learn what makes a free people secure in a digital age. It really is different. The Cold War was an era of paper records, locked vaults and state secrets, for which a cloak-and-dagger mindset may have been appropriate. In a digital environment, our security comes not from our ability to keep our secrets but rather our ability to live our truth.

In light of the recent NSA surveillance scandal, Chomsky and Žižek offer us very different approaches, both of which are helpful for leftist critique. For Chomsky, the path ahead is clear. Faced with new revelations about the surveillance state, Chomsky might engage in data mining, juxtaposing our politicians' lofty statements about freedom against their secretive actions, thereby revealing their utter hypocrisy. Indeed, Chomsky is a master at this form of argumentation, and he does it beautifully in Hegemony or Survival when he contrasts the democratic statements of Bush regime officials against their anti-democratic actions. He might also demonstrate how NSA surveillance is not a strange historical aberration but a continuation of past policies, including, most infamously, the FBI's counter intelligence programme in the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s.

Žižek, on the other hand, might proceed in a number of ways. He might look at the ideology of cynicism, as he did so famously in the opening chapter of The Sublime Object of Ideology, in order to demonstrate how expressions of outrage regarding NSA surveillance practices can actually serve as a form of inaction, as a substitute for meaningful political struggle. We know very well what we are doing, but still we are doing it; we know very well that our government is spying on us, but still we continue to support it (through voting, etc). Žižek might also look at how surveillance practices ultimately fail as a method of subjectivisation, how the very existence of whistleblowers like Thomas Drake, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, and the others who are sure to follow in their footsteps demonstrates that technologies of surveillance and their accompanying ideologies of security can never guarantee the full participation of the people they are meant to control. As Žižek emphasises again and again, subjectivisation fails.

In early 2011, award-winning photographer Rita Leistner was embedded with a U.S. marine battalion deployed to Helmand province as a member of Project Basetrack, an experiment in using new technologies in social media to extend traditional war reporting. This new LRC series draws on Leistner’s remarkable iPhone photos and her writings from her time in Afghanistan to use the ideas of Marshall McLuhan to make sense of what she saw there – “to examine the face of war through the extensions of man.”

2nd Update: Žižek responds to Chomsky's "Fantasies"

  • Žižek v. Chomsky continues: Žižek has responded to Chomsky's last comment in an article in the International Journal of Žižek Studies. You can read the entire article here, select excerpts follow. I am particularly interested in how Žižek focuses on conflicting definitions of ideology as a key factor in Chomsky's misunderstanding of Žižek's work:

For me, on the contrary, the problem is here a very rational one: everything hinges on how we define “ideology.”

[...]

This bias is ideology - a set of explicit and implicit, even unspoken, ethico-political and other positions, decision, choices, etc., which predetermine our perception of facts, what we tend to emphasize or to ignore, how we organize facts into a consistent whole of a narrative or a theory.

  • After a rational and diplomatic refutation of Chomsky's comments, Žižek ends the essay with a parting blow:

Chomsky obviously doesn’t agree with me here. So what if – just another fancy idea of mine – what if Chomsky can not find anything in my work that goes "beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old because” because, when he deals with continental thought, it is his mind which functions as the mind of a twelve-years-old, the mind which is unable to distinguish serious philosophical reflection from empty posturing and playing with empty words?

 

Update: Chomsky contra Žižek

Noam Chomsky has responded to Žižek's response:

Žižek finds nothing, literally nothing, that is empirically wrong. That’s hardly a surprise. Anyone who claims to find empirical errors, and is minimally serious, will at the very least provide a few particles of evidence – some quotes, references, at least something. But there is nothing here – which, I’m afraid, doesn’t surprise me either. I’ve come across instances of Žižek’s concept of empirical fact and reasoned argument.

For example, in the Winter 2008 issue of the German cultural journal Lettre International, Žižek attributed to me a racist comment on Obama by Silvio Berlusconi. I ignored it. Anyone who strays from ideological orthodoxy is used to this kind of treatment. However, an editor of Harper’s magazine, Sam Stark, was interested and followed it up. In the January 2009 issue he reports the result of his investigation. Žižek said he was basing the attribution on something he had read in a Slovenian magazine. A marvelous source, if it even exists.

The Guardian provides a summary for those just tuning in:

Noam Chomsky, the professional contrarian, has accused Slavoj Žižek, the professional heretic, of posturing in the place of theory. This is an accusation often levelled at Žižek from within the Anglo-Saxon empirical tradition. Even those like Chomsky who are on the proto-anarchist left of this tradition like to maintain that their theories are empirically verifiable and rooted in reality.

Žižek has countered with the side-swipe that nobody had been so empirically wrong throughout his life as Chomsky. He brought up Chomsky's supposed support for the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and Chomsky's later self-justification that there hadn't been empirical evidence at the time of the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. It has all got rather heated and intemperate, but then, debates on the left are like that. More time is spent ripping flesh out of each other than it is trying to find a common cause against an apparently invisible and impregnable enemy. But terms have to be defined, ground has to be laid out.

 

Žižek contra Chomsky

  • A minor war of words has emerged between two of my favorite public intellectuals: Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek. Late last month Open Culture posted audio of an interview with Chomsky (apparently from 2012). The interviewer asked for Chomsky's thoughts on Žižek (along with Derrida and Lacan) in light of Chomsky's views on the use of theory. In part, Chomsky responded:

What you’re referring to is what’s called “theory.” And when I said I’m not interested in theory, what I meant is, I’m not interested in posturing–using fancy terms like polysyllables and pretending you have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever. So there’s no theory in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t. So I’m not interested in that kind of posturing. Žižek is an extreme example of it. I don’t see anything to what he’s saying. Jacques Lacan I actually knew. I kind of liked him. We had meetings every once in awhile. But quite frankly I thought he was a total charlatan. He was just posturing for the television cameras in the way many Paris intellectuals do. Why this is influential, I haven’t the slightest idea. I don’t see anything there that should be influential.

What is that about, again, the academy and Chomsky and so on? Well with all deep respect that I do have for Chomsky, my first point is that Chomsky, who always emphasizes how one has to be empirical, accurate, not just some crazy Lacanian speculations and so on… well I don’t think I know a guy who was so often empirically wrong in his descriptions in his whatever! Let’s look… I remember when he defended this demonstration of Khmer Rouge. And he wrote a couple of texts claiming: No, this is Western propaganda. Khmer Rouge are not as horrible as that.” And when later he was compelled to admit that Khmer Rouge were not the nicest guys in the Universe and so on, his defense was quite shocking for me. It was that “No, with the data that we had at that point, I was right. At that point we didn’t yet know enough, so… you know.” But I totally reject this line of reasoning.

  • Chomsky certainly isn't the first person to accuse of Žižek of substanceless sophistry, but to my knowledge he's the most prominent so far.

Zizek's guide to ideology, Netflix tackles TV, digital dualist conservatism

Other ideological “masterpieces” that Žižek points to are much subtler, precisely because they occupy more prominent positions in the western cultural imaginary. He reads Jaws as a condensation of all the “foreign invaders” that privileged societies like upper-middle-class America worry will disrupt their peaceful communities. Part of what makes Fiennes’ film such a great showcase for Žižek’s approach to cultural studies is the persuasive effect of supplementing his explications with film clips. After listening to Žižek’s account of the ideological coordinates of the film, it’s difficult not to notice that all of the beach-goers scrambling to make it to the shore in one piece are affluent white Americans.

  • Writing for Memeburn, Michelle Atagana considers the strategies employed by Netflix in trying to “win television”. The strategies include producing original content, feeding binge habits, and using product placement.

If Netflix refines its model and signs on more shows, chances are it will make a formidable foe of big cable players such as HBO. The model that the company is currently working could also be exported to film, essentially making the next cinematic experience wherever, whenever and on whatever device the audience wants.

  • The Society Pages’ Cyborgology blog is one of my favorite resources for probing and provocative analysis of new media issues from a sociological perspective. One of the most interesting concepts considered by the blogs contributors is the notion of Digital Dualism. A recent post by Jesse Elias Spafford refines the digital dualism concept:

I posit that digital dualism, in fact, draws from both the ontological and the normative analyses. Specifically the digital dualist:

  1. Establishes an ontological distinction that carves up the world into two mutually exclusive (and collectively exhaustive) categories—at least one of which is somehow bound up with digital technology (e.g., that which is “virtual” vs. that which is “real”.)

  2. Posits some normative criteria that privileges one category over the other. (In most cases, it is the non-technological category that is deemed morally superior. However, charges of digital dualism would equally apply to views that favored the technological.)

The slave that frees his masters: Ulterior agency from Zardoz to Žižek

I recently watched the 1974 film Zardoz for the first time. The film is bizarre and compelling, defying easy comparisons to other movies. Set in the 23rd century Zardoz depicts a post-apocalyptic society where groups of armed men called Exterminators rove the barren countryside hunting and killing people they refer to as "Brutals". The Exterminators worship a giant stone head called Zardoz that flies around and dispenses guns and ammunition from its mouth. Zardoz teaches his chosen followers: The gun is good. The penis is evil. The penis shoots seeds, and makes new life to poison the Earth with a plague of men, as once it was, but the gun shoots death, and purifies the Earth of the filth of brutals. Go forth ... and kill!

Disillusioned with Zardoz, an Exterminator called Zed (plated by Sean Connery) stows away in the giant floating head to discover the truth about his god. Zed discovers a hidden society, the remnants of human civilization, who have secluded themselves from the rest of humanity and live in a community protected from the outlying lands by an invisible force field. It is explained that as society collapsed and the ecosystem deteriorated the rich, powerful and clever elite broke away from the rest of the species so that they might preserve the best of human civilization among themselves.

The aim of this essay is not to provide a synopsis of the plot of Zardoz (which is highly recommended viewing), but to elaborate on a particular story element. Quoting from the Wikipedia entry for the film:

Zed is less brutal and far more intelligent than the Eternals think he is. Genetic analysis reveals he is the ultimate result of long-running eugenics experiments devised by Arthur Frayn — the Zardoz god — who controlled the outlands with the Exterminators, thus coercing the Brutals to supply the Vortices with grain. Zardoz's aim was to breed a superman who would penetrate the Vortex and save mankind from its hopelessly stagnant status quo. The women's analysis of Zed's mental images earlier had revealed that in the ruins of the old world Arthur Frayn first encouraged Zed to learn to read before then leading him to the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Zed finally understands the origin of the name Zardoz — Wizard of Oz — bringing him to a true awareness of Zardoz as a skillful manipulator rather than an actual deity. He becomes infuriated with this realization and decides to plumb the deepest depths of this enormous mystery.

To reiterate: Zed discovered books, learned to read, and began reading voraciously. Eventually he read Frank Baum's "Wizard of Oz" which features an old man who controls a society by using a large mask and booming voice to create the illusion of a powerful superbeing, as well as offering a clue as to the origin of the name "Zardoz". Zed resigns himself to discovering the truth about Zardoz and in doing so manages to get inside the secret community of the Eternals. Once there he eventually learns that he was the result of selected breeding controlled by Zardoz (Arthur Frayn), with the goal of producing a "mutant" who would be genetically superior to even the Eternals. Frayn reveals that it was he who led Zed to discover the books and to eventually read "The Wizard of Oz". He intended for Zed to infiltrate the Vortex and to destroy the Eernals' society, thereby liberating them from their stagnant and disaffected existence as immortal beings reduced to petty squabbling with one another. Frayn explicitly refers to Zed as "the slave who frees his masters".

I use the phrase "ulterior agency" to refer to the notion of a person who takes action to undermine a controlling force, only to later discover that their subversion was designed and intended by the very forces they believed themselves to be working against. There are other examples of ulterior agents in popular cinema, notably in The Matrix Reloaded and Total Recall. Neal King has written an essay on this theme titled "Secret Agency in Postmodern Cinema". King analyzes several films that feature ulterior agents as part of a sub-genre he calls "mind-fuck movies" in order to "reconsider the status of authorship and agency in a postmodern world--in which subjects are commodities to be redefined for profit and prestige."

King begins his content analysis with the David Cronenberg film Videodrome:

Tired of the banality programmed by the television station he runs, Max searches for "something harder." He samples recordings of torture called "Videodrome." The footage turns him on, and Max watches until he hallucinates a blend of video display, sex, and violence. But he soon learns that "Videodrome" is a mind control tool, wielded by fascists who induce Max to kill.

Max discovers that his status as agent-in-training has been kept so secret that neither he nor the audience knows about it until late in the film. He is a postmodern pawn.

This blog will discuss Videodrome further in an upcoming article. King goes on to compare Total Recall and the Matrix films.

Both heroes are rudely awakened to the fact that they have been brainwashed, their apparent normalcy all lies. Both begin to search for truths about their origins. The films' second acts introduce complications: one hero may be the foretold savior of the last colony of humankind, unplugged from the brainwashing matrix in order to free people from parasitic machines; the other may be a spy, also implanted (with false memories and a sham marriage to make the subterfuge more convincing) into a proletarian rebellion.

In each case, a rebel mentor is captured or killed by an oppressive ruler; and it turns out that the deluded heroes were being used by secret police. "That's the best mind fuck yet," says the hero of Total Recall, who must escape another brainwashing in order to realize (what might be) his destiny. The hero of The Matrix must rescue his kidnapped mentor to fulfill his own. The fourth, climactic acts test heroes in the combat that suggests who they, and what their destinies, are. Both rescue people they love and appear to be foretold saviors after all, but both also know they were programmed by others to work their miracles. They may be heroic, but are hardly free in any liberal sense. Brainwashed to do good is brainwashed nonetheless; and they do not know which identities might be all their own, or whether there is such a thing. Indeed, the Matrix cycle saves its final revelation of the hero's purpose for the climax of its first sequel; then, as in Total Recall, he learns the dispiriting truth that his savior status was manufactured by oppressors to subvert rebellion.

Indeed, the revelation at the climax of the Matrix Reloaded completely recontextualizes the events of the first film and lays the groundwork for the final installment. Apparently many viewers were confused by the exposition delivered by the Architect (there's even a youtube video that presents the Architect scene translated with "for dummies" plain-English subtitles). Web site Matrix 101 elucidates the information relayed in this scene as follows:

Zion is another level of control by the machines over humanity. It was designed by the machines as a destination for the malcontents that reject the Matrix - a place for them to believe they are free, and deceive them into thinking they have an opportunity to free the world. In fact, the machines have a necessary cycle, one that's been played out five previous times: Zion is built up by those who free themselves from the Matrix, the war intensifies, the One is located, trained, and directed by the prophecy to the Source, the machines destroy Zion, the One picks 23 people to free from the Matrix to begin rebuilding Zion (with no prior knowledge that Zion ever existed), and the cycle begins anew. This is the sixth time this has happened. Neo is the sixth One. The machines have destroyed Zion five times before. This cycle is likely what the movie's title refers to - each time the cycle begins again, the Matrix is reloaded. It's also a necessary evil for the Matrix - until the Architect can achieve 100% acceptance of the Matrix and eliminate the need for the One, this cycle must play out as described or the system will become unstable and crash.

The prophecy isn't true: the One is not meant to free mankind, just to further ensure their servitude to the machines.

I often analyze the content of popular entertainment to identify messages of socialization or ideological framing. The theme of ulterior agency is one that strikes me as especially intriguing and potentially significant. But what is the social or political parallel pointed to by ulterior agency plots?

One possibility posed by the plots of both Total Recall and Matrix Reloaded suggests that "the monomyth itself is a potential hegemonic tool that can be used to perpetuate an even more totalitarian system of control" (quoted from a post by user Octaveon on AICN. The quote comes from an excellent comment that Octaveon posted in an Inception discussion thread. Unfortunately I have not been able to locate the original post.). To elaborate: comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell coined the phrases "hero's journey" and "monomyth" to refer to a fundamental narrative found in myths and stories shared by cultures around the world, and now used as the basis for most Hollywood screenplays. Campbell believed the monomyth structure was universal in story telling, and indeed virtually all popular cinema narratives conform to the monomyth. Campbell's own succinct synopsis of the hero's journey is:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Total Recall and the Matrix both follow this basic structure (in fact, the Matrix is a "textbook example" of the monomyth, as is the wonderful The Truman show). The plot of The Matrix is a paragon of monomyth storytelling, as is the first Star Wars film. Yet the transformative power of the hero's journey is not limited to the mechanics of mythmaking. Encountering Campbell's explication of the monomyth has enabled people to view themselves as heroic beings, and their lives as journeys of adventure and overcoming. In fact, Campbell believed that the meaning of the hero's journey was not in learning how to tell a story, but in understanding how to live your life. Campbell's writings have inspired many to recognize a spiritual element unifying all life; the present author included.

So what exactly does it mean to say that the monomyth is a hegemonic tool used to perpetuate a system of control? How can we apply this reading to an understanding of our current socio-political situation or personal lives? I confess that I do not know for certain, but I have some ideas on the subject.

After the final installment of the Star Wars series, Revenge of the Sith, was released, Slavoj Žižek penned an essay titled "Revenge of Global Finance," in which he analyzes the political implications of the Star Wars saga.

How did the Republic turn into the Empire, or, more precisely, how does a democracy become a dictatorship? Lucas explained that it isn’t that the Empire conquered the Republic, but that the Republic became the Empire. “One day, Princess Leia and her friends woke up and said, ‘This isn’t the Republic anymore, it’s the Empire. We are the bad guys.’ ” The contemporary connotations of this reference to Ancient Rome suggest the Star Wars transformation from Republic to Empire should be read against the background of Hardt and Negri’s Empire (from Nation State to the Global Empire).

Of course, when I consider the developments of the prequel trilogy I don't think of Rome's transformation from republic to empire, but of America's ("This is how liberty dies," Natalie Portman's character says in the film, and Žižek does acknowledge the parallels to America's post-9/11 metamorphosis in his essay, writing: "In today’s “war on terror,” the real danger is what this war is turning us into.").

The influence of Joseph Campbell's work on George Lucas is well-established. Luke Skywalker's journey in Star Wars is precisely the hero's journey, and Lucas continued to draw from that tried-and-true narrative framework in presenting the story of Anakin Skywalker in the prequels. Žižek picks up on this by noticing the Christ-like elements of Anakin's story and contrasting them with the "Western Buddhist" New Age values espoused by the Jedi Knights. This provides the departure point for Žižek to address the place of New Age spirituality in the dominant system of global capitalism:

At the very moment when, at the level of “economic infrastructure,” Western technology and capitalism are triumphing worldwide, at the level of “ideological superstructure,” the Judeo-Christian legacy is threatened in the West itself by the onslaught of New Age “Asiatic” thought. Such Eastern wisdom, from “Western Buddhism” to Taoism, is establishing itself as the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. But while Western Buddhism presents itself as the remedy against the stress of capitalism’s dynamics—by allowing us to uncouple and retain some inner peace—it actually functions as the perfect ideological supplement.

Here, one is almost tempted to resuscitate the old, infamous Marxist cliché of religion as “the opium of the people,” as the imaginary supplement of real-life misery. The “Western Buddhist” meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in the capitalist economy while retaining the appearance of sanity. If Max Weber were alive today, he would definitely write a second, supplementary volume to his Protestant Ethic, titled The Taoist Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capitalism.

Could this be the ultimate political significance of ulterior agency? That rather than being opposed to the capitalist system the Buddhist mentality is perfectly suited to it? Even more, that a Western Buddhist ideological stance is now a necessary position to take in order to endure the anxieties of living in a modern capitalist system? Or that as consumers awaken to their spiritual nature and seek liberation from the soul-draining and life-negating capitalist system of totalitarian thought control, they end up buying into a ready-made subculture that is happy to sell them the yoga mats and meditation manuals that symbolize their liberation while leaving the status quo unperturbed? Certainly something to consider. But preserving the status quo isn't quite the same as "the slave freeing his masters." Neo in the Matrix and Schwarzenegger in Total Recall were manipulated to preserve the existing order by joining the resistance groups and serving as unwitting infiltrators, allowing the controllers to preserve their dominance by destroying the rebellion. But in Zardoz, Zed is used to disrupt the status quo, to shake the elites from the monotony and stagnation of their perpetual supremacy. Indeed, the Eternals celebrate Zed for freeing them from their immortality. Perhaps I will return to this issue another time.

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