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 I may continue to blog here, but it will be infrequent and unlikely.


Are You Your Stuff?

Note: I know I’ve been absent from blogging for awhile now, the truth is I’ve been incredibly busy adjusting to life as a new graduate student with an internship, a part time job, and a 2 hour commute. If that sounds less than ideal – it is. Hopefully things will improve.

IfIWereAHoarder on tumbr brought the following advertisement for Norton to my attention:

Norton actually has a pretty interesting concept here: we are defined by our “stuff,” or our digital information. This isn’t really stuff as we might first understand it: objectifying it emphasizes the materiality of such texts, but at the same time, the video demonstrates the phenomenology of those texts by saying it’s “the stuff that connects you to people you love.” Hansen writes that the division of those concepts applied to media creates a theoretical oscillation between the two perspectives. But in the video, while the notion of “stuff” seems divorced from the individuality of the characters (which hearkens back to Tyler Durden’s axiom, “the things you own end up owning you “) it fails to incorporate the concept of that media as an extension of the user, in the McLuhan tradition. Hansen even goes a step further in championing that idea, writing that “digital code compromises the most recent and most complex stage of the ongoing evolution of technics.” It is, again in his words,  “an expansion of the very exteriorization that is constructive of the human”

Norton says, “you are your stuff,” and they’re right, but not exactly clear. The railroad didn’t change what people are essentially, but it “accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions” (McLuhan, 1964). Likewise, our stuff  changes the scale of our behavior, adding onto what already exists. In the thought of Regis Debray, new media doesn’t replace existing forms, but it augments them, changing “the whole social and economic system of media” in the process.

Our “stuff,” in Norton’s terms, is merely ourselves – but broken into pieces that can be lost or stolen. This raises questions about control over our identity – not just in a practical sense, but in a more abstract way. Do we own our information after we share it with others? If we lose our “stuff,” presumably it’s still ours, but when it’t stolen, do we still retain ownership? In the examples of cultural appropriation, the misuse of items and images traditional associated with one society raises concern for colonialist abuse. MyCultureIsNotATrend is one blogger who follows the unfortunate tendency of white and non-native peoples to use the “war bonnet” as a fashion statement. In other cases, we see where cultural commodification makes capitalist gains off of otherwise authentic artifacts. Industrial society constantly recycles the relevant artifacts of past societies in a desperate attempt to find authenticity in the now – even when it only travels a short distance into the past to do so. Douglas Haddow wrote about this three years ago in a lament about “hipster culture” where he said

We are a lost generation, desperately clinging to anything that feels real, but too afraid to become it ourselves. We are a defeated generation, resigned to the hypocrisy of those before us, who once sang songs of rebellion and now sell them back to us. We are the last generation, a culmination of all previous things, destroyed by the vapidity that surrounds us. The hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture so detached and disconnected that it has stopped giving birth to anything new.

We can also see this in Marianna Torgovnick’s writings about how “the West’s fascination with the primitive has to do with it’s own crises in identity.” This is nothing new. Whether one remember’s James Cameron’s Avatar or any example of the “noble savage” literary device, there is a little acknowledged tendency of modern society to acknowledge its flaws through the wistful cloying desperation for authenticity in a “magical negro” and other forms of romantic racism, stealing the identity and the image of other peoples while turning them into media products to be marketed and sold. I hesitate to mention the most ubiquitous example of this – Che Guevara.

This is not a critique of primitivism, but rather the clumsy and awkward way that people have manhandled the identities and cultural artifacts of other societies – whether it’s katanas (The Last Samurai), celtic imagery (by white supremacists), native african tribal fashions (this ad campaign), aboriginal dress (Russian ice skaters), Maori tribal tattoos (frat guys everywhere), and so on… the point being, that if our “stuff” really is us, then why are we so careless with other people’s stuff? Prior to digital information, physical artifacts functioned as a form of media. We can even understand cultural artifacts that functioned with significant social influence and meaningfulness as ancient technology – the type of technology that Joeseph Campbell explained the function of during various native social/spiritual rituals. Members of a tribe adopt a role and are transformed though the use of masks or other apparel. Their entire identity changes in such functions, until the ritual is resolved. Today, we non-primitives who rely on much more sophisticated methods (thanks to the evolution of technics) hang that older technology on the walls of our poorly decorated living spaces and buy them cheap from craft stores.

Mark Hansen, “Media Theory,” Theory, Culture & Society, 23(2-3) (2006): 297-306.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New American Library, 1964.
Torgovnick, Marianna. Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives. Chicago: University of Chicago, (1990): 157-158
Joseph Campbell: Mythos I (Acacia, 2007).

Addressing Belief Perseverance

People don’t like being told they’re wrong. Most of us want to believe what we like, and we fall prey to various forms of confirmation bias in the hopes of sheltering our tender ego. One these phenomena that happens is belief perseverance: “the persistence of one’s initial concepts, as when the basis for one’s belief is discredited but an explanation of why the belief might be true survives” (Social Psychology, Myers).

Mass media can lend itself to such  incidents regularly. Bad journalism happens when news organizations rush to release incomplete and even inaccurate information to “break” the story. Meyers uses the example of a study which demonstrated how misinformation persisted in the memories of Americans. When we hear something in the news, if we feel it’s something that we can explain and understand, and if we aren’t skeptical to begin with, we’re more likely to retain that misinformation and even adhere to it.

The researchers also classified people as sceptical if they disagreed with the official reason given for war, ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

The results showed there were far fewer sceptics in the US than in Germany and Australia. And that such sceptics were less likely to believe statements that they knew had been retracted than those people classified as non-sceptical.

Most people in Germany and Australia opposed the Iraq war in the first place. But non-skeptics in America were more positive about news on the war. As Lewandowsky said, “People do not discount corrected information unless they are suspicious about it or unless they are given some other hypothesis with which to interpret the information.”

Alternative frameworks and points of view become important  for critical thinking – not just for summary opinion, but as part of the process by which we form those opinions. But this isn’t how we address that problem – for the most part, we depend on objectivity and a supposed lack of bias. But this is impossible. Still, a slavish devotion to that illusion creates a uniformity among most news organizations (Uniformity in message control is also an extremely effective way of managing propaganda campaigns).

Lord, Lepper and Preston (1984) found that  “the cognitive strategy of considering opposite possibilities promoted impartiality.” Myers also points out that explaining why opposite theories might be true addresses belief perseverance positively. Even imagining any alternative outcome will help people in solving their belief perseverance. (Hirt & Markman, 1995; Anderson & Sechler, 1986)

This means that news organizations are actively remiss in not pursuing “alternative outcomes” or other hypotheses by submitting to existing frames. The abstraction of providing those differing scopes and shielding the public from misinformation is apparently not worth the effort it takes to invest added effort to each story that runs this risk.  Or, from an even more cynical perspective, it interferes with message control.

Journalism And Other Popular Misnomers

Communication can be perceived as a process occurring from the manipulation of agreed upon signs, symbols and sounds, etc. A typical goal of communication is to express or transmit some specific concept to another party, to achieve some goal of our own.

Communication (as a discipline) has several sub-fields, the most relevant to the big picture being “mass communication.” Even if one person is responsible for a policy of information dissemination, that individual’s thoughts are not their own; they are the product of various group decisions and organizational culture. In an traditional establishment where the status quo rules, people who reach a position of authority where they can easily affect a change are already conditioned against doing so. We call that groupthink, and people who reach the top are the most exposed to it.

Anyway, mass communication (as a practice) has three basic functions: public relations, advertising, and journalism. All of these are means by which one motivated party communicates some information with another party. Whether that information is narrowcasted or broadcasted to small or wide audience, there is one intention, which roughly sums up the purpose for what’s happening whenever someone does “journalism” or “marketing” or “public relations.”  What do these communicators have in mind when they reach out to the masses?

Image construction.

No, I don’t mean that they’re building an image of themselves in their audience’s perception. Rather, I mean they are building the audience’s perceptions so that it can properly receive the right images.

Let me try to explain that. Traditionally, we imagine public relations as an industry which massages the existing image of a public entity. Damage control, bettering business to business relations, raising consumer profile through alternatives to advertising, public relations is commonly understood to improve upon the existing conception of the client so as to improve their standing (or destroy it, in the case of negative PR). But couldn’t PR also operate in a backwards manner? Say for instance, prospective clients already have a neutral image of a company. They don’t have any strong feelings about it because they don’t feel as though it’s services apply to them. Then, a PR firm works to clarify and communicate how that audience needs the services offered. Now, their perceptions can further be conditioned so that that company appears very appealing to them.

Marketing is all about image construction. What do you think of when you think about gas and gas stations? Dirty, expensive necessity, gross road food, etc? A great spot can evoke larger themes of freedom, excitement, and even patriotism and nationalism, which are associated with the gas station and prime the customer not only to buy the product, but like it too.

Journalism is probably the most elaborate  form of image construction. Currently, a lot of information production falls under the umbrella of this craft which failed to create a professional identity for itself partially because of this idea. It’s plagued with VNRs and press kit materials, with profit-motivated managers and ideologues, all corrupted by their natural tendency to frame communication in a preferred  light.  But whether journalists decide to adhere to objectivity or transparency, they are ultimately pursuing a form of image construction – whether they are following someone else’s agenda, or encouraging the more democratic perspective of making up your own mind. While the more crude attempts at the latter fall squarely under the banner of “propaganda,” sophisticated attempts at promoting critical thinking are still attempts to shape the perspective of the audience (by allowing them to do it as they please, “freeform” image).

All of these attempts at image construction are merely manifestations of prevailing orders and patterns of belief and thought. As Hans M Enzensberger described it,

“The mind industry’s main business and concern is not to sell its product: it is to ‘sell’ the existing order, to perpetuate the prevailing pattern of man’s domination by man, no matter who runs the society, and by what means. Its main task is to expand and train our consciousness – in order to exploit it.” – Industrialization of the Mind, 1962

Enzensberger attributed these practices to advertising, but I believe they apply to all forms of mass communication, however with less ominous overtones as they represent diverging causes and motivations.

Just to reiterate, image construction is a part of the process. The motivations come from various goals on behalf of the party where mass communication originates. As such, image construction itself is not inherently “good” or “bad,” it’s merely a way to describe some media effects.

This is probably way too vague a concept. Lord knows my best thinking doesn’t happen at 2:35am.

Back into Eden

Apologies for the long lapses in posts – I’ve been trying to get myself settled in Connecticut, looking for work, getting ready for the start of fall classes at The New School, and so on. In continuing my own personal reading and study, I came across a fabulous book  by a Jungian analyst named  Anthony Stevens: Ariadne’s Clue, which innocently enough describes itself as “A guide to the symbols of humankind” on the cover, but is much, much more.

Chances are all of us have seen symbol guides, coffee table books which purport to decipher the images in our dreams and in all forms of media: oral narratives, books, films, sculpture and visual arts are full of powerful representations which echo some intrinsic meaning. Most of these guides are somewhat silly and perhaps a bit arbitrary. I own two, 1000 Symbols (which provides a brief, loose and incomplete history of each symbol) and Traditional Symbols (a bit more thorough). But each read like dream dictionaries which ensure the reader they can interpret the images themselves. Stevens offers no such assurance – the book is split into two parts, the first, a very enlightening overview of evolutionary psychology, anthropology, mythology, and semiotics as they relate to traditional and ancient images, such as the Uroboros. The second is a thesaurus, which Stevens begins by stating

…No such treasury can ever hope to be exhaustive, since the variety of symbols arising in dreams, religions, and works of art is infinite. Nor does this Thesaurus offer a form of “dream book” where ready-made meanings to symbols can be looked up. Our imagination makes use of common symbols, it is true, but these must always be examined within the context of the life of the person producing them. (P.93)

Stevens stresses a reliance on metaphor and analogy and not literalism – in the tradition of Jung, symbols are ways for us to understand the subconscious and develop the self. “…one becomes aware of new meanings arising from the unconscious psyche by seeing these mirrored in outer reality” (P.133). These signs evoke fragments of our evolutionary heritage – complex concepts for which there are not always enough words to totally define. The historical psychic process of symbol creation  include three aspects:

  • Resemblance – simile and metaphor, rhetorical tools like hyperbolic statements, not logical but representative of parallel  ideas. Stevens cites Cirlot’s definition of “the principle of sufficient identity.”
  • Condensation – A Freudian concept, where dream symbols are “over-determined” and many meanings are drawn into a single configuration.
  • Macrocosm and microcosm – “subjective manifestation of a psychological process in the person creating it.” A convenient example is the axis mundi, where a tree stands for the focal point of all creation and a conduit between the natural and the supernatural.

Stevens entire book is well worth reading, with valuable concepts such as sacred technology, mythical cognition, but I’d like to focus on one part that really struck me: the symbolism of the “loss of Eden” on page 202.

A neolithic farm in Southern Shetland

I’ve written briefly about this before(1 2) – ever since reading Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael I’ve been struck by the prospect of reinterpreting Genesis as an evolutionary fable about agricultural revolution. Stevens puts those thoughts into a wonderful perspective that deconstructs “paradise lost” on five symbolic levels: – early migration from the forest, the hunter-gatherer becomes agriculturist, an allegory of birth, the ego emerging from the Self, and developing the human consciousness.

In one of my earlier posts I talked about the vegetarianism in the garden of Eden – Stevens mentions how “the early ancestral transition from the primeval forest to the open Savannah entailed the abandonment of a predominantly vegetarian diet of gathered fruit and the adoption of a more carnivorous diet of hunted meat.” Following that migration, the transition between hunter-gatherer and agriculturalist about 10,000 years ago “is suggested by the occupations of Adam’s first sons, Cain and Abel, a ploughman and a shepherd respectively,” a detail that Quinn uses to great effect in the writing of Ishmael. This conflict of transition could also have been one of class – groups of hunter-gatherer would most certainly clash with agriculturalists over territory and resources.

The next three aspects (allegory of birth/ego emerging/development of consciousness) are really to my interest – birth as a purely physical event still evokes the two other phenomena. As David Byrne sang, “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” In order to emerge from what we now see as the perfect symmetry of prehistoric ecology,  there is a violent separation between mother and child. The child has a hand in this:

The snake tells Adam and Eve that if they eat of the fruit, their eyes will be opened (they will become conscious) and they will be like God. ‘There is a deep doctrine in the legend of the Fall,’ wrote Jung; ‘it is the expression of a dim presentiment that the emancipation of the ego-consciousness was a Luciferian deed. Man’s whole history consists from the very beginning in a conflict between his feeling of inferiority and his arrogance’ (CW9i, para. 420). To be conscious is to become aware of creation, like the God who created it, and to know it for what it is. Humanity is no longer passively subservient to Nature but well on the way to mastering it. (P. 204)

From a deep ecology point of view, this is great stuff. But my comparison in earlier posts to Prometheus has its place  as well, and Stevens is on his way there:

The ‘demiurge’ that created Eden would have kept humanity in ignorance (unconsciousness): ‘But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest therof thou shalt surely die’ (Gensis 2:17). Adam’s disobedience to God, like Prometheus’s theft of fire, is a felix culpa, a happy sin, for it advances the cause of human consciousness. Acordingly, the Orphites, a Gnostic sect of the second century AD, celebrated the serpent as a principle of gnosis – of knowledge and emerging awareness.’ The serpent, like Prometheus, initiates development at the price of suffering, for consciousness brings with it knowledge of the tragic fate of every human life – the inevitability of death. Pain, suffering, and death exist in the absence of consciousness, it is true, but if there is no consciousness to experience them, then they do not exist psychologically. Without consciousness, life is a state of anaesthesia. Accordingly, Prometheus suffers the eagle’s visists to gnaw at his liver during the daytime (consciousness), and the wounbd heals up at night (unconsciousness). During the night we all return to that original unconscious wholeness out of which we (and the ego) were born. In this way the ills and traumas of the day are healed by the sleep that ‘knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care’. (P.204-205)

Now it would be interesting to compare these thoughts with a Buddhist perspective of ego-death and noself, but before we can go there we should see Steven’s conclusion.

…the development of consciousness demands mastery over the beast and enslaving the two-million-year-old human in ourselves in the name of civilized order and commerce: it represents the apotheosis of the left pre-frontal cortex over the rest of the brain. The development of cities, armies, and empires would never have been possible without such self-discipline: ‘the city, once conceived as a representation of Heaven, took on many of the features of a military camp,’ wrote Lewis Mumford (1996), ‘a place of confinement, daily drill, punishment. To be chained, day after day, year after year, to a single occupation, a single workshop, even finally to a single manual operation… that was the worker’s lot.” This was the triumphant outcome of the hero’s recurrent victory over the monster. A hollow victory indeed! And, not surprisingly, it set of dreams of regaining Paradise.

Again, I can’t recommend this book enough. If you have any interest in these topics, go find a copy at the library or online.

Two Moral Compasses

I was very excited this spring when I was accepted to The New School to get my Master of Arts in Media Studies . Besides that it’s an excellent program, there are a lot of very smart people at The New School – it was founded by people like Charles Beard and John Dewey,  and the list of alumni is basically a who’s who of progressive intellectuals, artists and leaders. When you want to be a part of some greater movement of ideals and thought, it’s good to find a nexus of those thinkers and align yourself with it.

Anyway, there’s a lot of interesting thought that comes out of such a place, like this:

Working with Emanuele Castano, associate professor in the Department of Psychology, Leidner investigated how notions of right and wrong are affected by group affiliation. In his experiments, Leidner presented participants with fabricated newspaper articles about military troops accused of atrocities against Iraqi prisoners. One set of subjects read an article in which the offending troops were Australian; another set of subjects received an otherwise identical article in which the soldiers were American. The subjects, all of whom were American, were far more likely to demand justice for the Iraqis when the accused soldiers were Australian. In other words, shared nationality seemed to trump universal morality.

“Basically, what we found is that people don’t have one moral compass, but two: one for the group they’re in, and one for others,” Leidner says. “People shift away from moral principles of justice and fairness toward principles of loyalty and authority.”

Using current, relevant examples, this study clearly demonstrates  what we already know about social identity theory and in-group bias. What Leidner says also suggests that universal morality is inefficient for serving their social group – we develop exceptions to our ethics because it suits our interests. In this case true egalitarianism would merely be an authentic universal morality – applying the same set of principles to everyone. However, this is contrary to our nature when we are manipulated by ignorance and fear from various forces such as nationalism, racism, sexism, etc. We define our identities so rigorously within strict parameters which separate us from other  people – groups align by income, ethnicity, ideology, religion, etc. Unless people physically move to a community (such as historical “utopias” and the modern day developments and neighborhoods, gated or not), their physical community will be much more diverse then they would otherwise care for, and so they find themselves separated by those class and cultural distinctions.

So when people are divided like that, they have develop a substitute community via some means such as civic groups (largely extinct), country clubs in the case of the wealthy, community centers in the case of the poor, and so on. Sometimes, they do that online. But an internet community has significant disadvantages to a localized one – there is something to be said for physical interaction. And there’s somewhat less of a chance to affect one’s regional community if your fellow members or advocates are scattered all across the country. If your group is something large and ambiguous, meant for those in your determined class or culture, the second “moral compass” applies to people you don’t even know. And it works against other people you don’t know. It’s based on assumptions, stereotypes, generalizations, and other weak and flimsy rationalizations.  That’s why personal interaction is so important. It’s also why it’s better to have one compass which works all the time. Unless we’re committed to the idea of tribalism in 2011, we ought to recognize some universal human rights – but doing so requires a universal morality we don’t seem to have… at least not yet.

Necessary Illusions

While reading a bit recently, I came across the following:

“Rationalism belongs to the cool observer. But because of the stupidity of the average person, they follow not reason, but faith. This naive faith, requires necessary illusions and emotionally potent oversimplifications, which are provided by the myth maker to keep the ordinary person on course.”

– Reinhold Niebuhr

This is where Chomsky got the title of one of his books. Now, is that not in the spirit of Bernays?

It also raises the questions presented by earlier communications thinkers (Lasswell, Lippman). Propaganda is inevitable in a democratic society, but is it necessary? and are we better than that?

I still haven’t been able to answer that.