Towards Real Critique, or Why Nothing in America Will Change

"The medium is the massage. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media works as environments." — Marshall McLuhan

The most brilliant thing the American system does is make reform the agenda of change — and reform, necessarily, is constitutive of the very system it seeks to change. Real change — systemic change — becomes impossible.

Consider professional football, a subject that has received a lot of press recently. For over 100 years, there has been a steady movement to reform the sport, to make it safer. The forward pass and discrete play, for instance, were instituted to prevent injuries associated with the scrum. But that means more open space, more acceleration, and harder hits. So they began making more robust padding. Which, in turn, allowed players to hit harder which, of course, led to more injuries. So they changed the helmet from leather to plastics. Which, in turn, led to players leading with their heads which led to increased head injuries. And so on.

The point is all the changes operated within the very logic of the game so of course not only do things not "improve," the system becomes more focused, better engineered: injuries increase.

Now, this is true of the American political system. The most ardent call for change in this country in recent years was a presidential candidate running under the same old rubric of parties and corporations and wars. The only thing radical about Obama is that he's smart. But, in a sense, that only makes him more dangerous because now we have a smart man refining the system that is destroying us.

Take the Jon Stewart show. I like Jon Stewart. He's funny and smart. His show is funny and smart. I see why people like watching it. But, c'mon, all it does is recapitulate the terms of the system it critiques. The thought is: if only we acted differently, things would be better. But there is no critique of the system itself! Look at the format: it is a news show. And who perpetuates the system? The news! His show acts like every other show, only smarter and funnier.

Where, in this country, do we have any — any! — critiques on a systemic level? We mock or ignore the radicals and communists who hand out pamphlets at subways and street corners. In other countries, this was the norm — think about the Communist movements in China and Russia. They were not fucking around. Critique began at a systemic level; change was then enacted systematically.

Now, I am not supporting the Cultural Revolution: it was a violent, cruel movement. But I am saying that change can only come at the level of the system and that begins with systemic critique. And yet we lack the tools, not to mention the will and desire, to perform such critique.

Look at our movies. Look at our literature. Look at our tv shows. They are all about the individual trying to work things out — to get a better job, to love his or her family, his or her life. Nowhere is there any critique of the system. Sure, there are critiques of the politicians, of the wars, but not of the system itself.

I think the first move is to institute a culture, a vocabulary, of critique. We have to teach people, teach kids, how to think on the level of a system. We have to teach them to consider the terms of a system, the terms of media, the terms of the conversation and not the conversation itself. We need an active press that discusses the terms, the environment, rather than focusing on the content.

More, soon.


Nathan said...

Nice thoughts here. Growing up in the eighties, the whole Energizer bunny, winking reflection on media as such, thing has been with me for as long as I can remember. One of the reasons I think ad campaigns are so gonzo now is that you can no longer connect with a media-saturated public in a naive way. A consciousness of the terms of the medium is a given. Advertisers have to figure out how to move in that space. Which is why we get the oddest shit these days, including ads for products that start off by telling you all the reasons you hate that product and then end by telling you that product is the solution - I'm thinking of a smart phone campaign that was going on a few months ago.

My point in mentioning all this is to say that, at least among my own generation, there's a really pervasive awareness of the way media shapes, or attempts to shape, our lives and attitudes. But this has created certain problems. This consciousness has directed so much critical, creative energy into a consideration of media as such. Because, for super media savvy kids, that's a field where we're hands down the smartest people in the room. And we get to have these little victories, these minor revolutions every time we figure out exactly how someone, or something, in the media is trying to manipulate us. I've seen some of the greatest minds of my generation destroyed by this smug preoccupation which, more often than not, quickly leads to cynicism, even nihilism, but with the most bourgeois consequences.

So, while I think that this sort of critical media consciousness, which in its finer moments achieves a sort of systematic rigor and clarity, is essential, there's something more that's needed to push through the inevitable cynicism which nestles so snugly into the status quo. Here, I think of Debord, who articulated one of the most lucid and systematic critiques of the twentieth century but based on the conviction that life should be vital, that it's not enough to be the one who knows, that we have to want life to escape the society of non-life. This, I think, is the crisis of my generation. We know but we do not want. Our criticism has given us a sort of pale dominion over life and we puff ourselves up with our inconsequential sovereignty.

It's rare that I pretend to be the voice of a generation, but I think this is real. So, the question for me is how do we learn to want again. How do we learn to want life instead of non-life? If we're going to change things, we need more than erudition. We need some real fucking desire.

Daniel Coffeen said...

I hear you, Nathan, but I think what you call knowing the terms of media and what I call knowing the terms of media — all media, the very structures of all discourse — are two different things.

Yes, y'all are savvy about manipulation of message. But I find a conspicuous, glaring ignorance among the youth of the structures of knowledge, power, media. I mean, I know more about the internet — how it structures lives, how it works technically — than the morons who spend 80 hours a week on it.

And I think you and I are actually diagnosing a common ill. You find a lack of desire, of real desire for life. I agree and I think that stems from a willingness to play along with a system, a refusal to consider the conditions of life, the terms of debate. They repeat the same old nonsense — including the "knowing" that you reference.

But that is a false knowing. That's the nudge and wink of movies and ads that let you know they're movies and and ads. It's not a structural knowing.

I mean, fuck, I tried teaching McLuhan for years and they never really know what the fuck I'm talking about.

I think true critical thinking eludes y'all more than it ever eluded my so-called Generation X. But that's a petty claim because, en masse, we are all desperately lost — lunging for media's red cloth, like the bull, doing what we're trained to do. When what we need to do is charge the crowd and ram our horns up their collective ass.