The Complacent Solipsism
A curated, productized media is the biggest threat to mass critical awareness that exists, yet why do we, as a society at mass scale, reject that which democratizes the creation of content?
Emerson said, “I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.” and I think this has particular relevance about the ability of the public in the modern era to, both, reason, but also critically evaluate information once it is accepted for reasoning. Consider the example of corporate media; we acknowledge the impact of corporate influence in the form of lobbying, in the form of choosing whether or not to buy local, or bank with a credit union, but seemingly not when it comes into conflict with other institutional frameworks like universities, the government in implementation upon which they’ve been lobbied, and seemingly about the delivery of information that is asserted to be, if not objective, at least editorially integrous or principled. We accept, for example, the Washington Post as a paragon of bold, and brave reporting, but we also accept that it’s owned by Jeff Bezos—who succeeds at a paper like this? Almost certainly someone willing to internalize their belief that corporations can be benevolent despite all evidence to the contrary, just like historically it would be staffed by those with only theorhetical objection to the workings of something like the RAND corporation or the ownership having ties to the defense department, about whose war efforts in Vietnam were a main topic of reporting.
This is just one example of the badge of being “a real [whatever]” differentiates the institution as credible, lending it to writers by beneficently allowing them to publish, rather than the outlet gaining credibility from the work of its writers and acquiring that work in the public’s interest. Being set apart from these institutions, refusing to don the badge, in our society as a result is now seen as an inherent lack of credibility; consider the example of Wikileaks. Early leaks were met with a great deal of skepticism from mainstream media consumers, despite their verified nature, and the ongoing prosecution of Julian Assange and those who leaked to him, that is until the Iraq War logs were published with multiple media outlets (not simply reported on, but they had to be reported by these outlets to be taken “seriously”—ultimately, this is what Assange was going to be targeted over, and partly for the same reasons of perception of legitimacy).
A lower stakes example, but one that thoroughly demonstrates the level to which media personalities on Twitter, the average news consumer, etc. refuses to deactivate the police in their own brains, is the relevance and cultural import of the discourse on all manner of podcast.
At some point during the last 9 months locked down in my home, I became 🤢 I became 🤢 oh, god 🤢🤢 became a Podcast Guy🤮🤮🤮. I tried a lot of podcasts, and found that my gripes with the same type of people I found myself annoyed by online were the same kind of podcasters. I hadn’t been big on podcasts, but eager to find something new to listen to longer than a song, but shorter than an audiobook, with some sense of contemporaneous value, I chose podcasts. I’ve also been an avid Twitter user since 2013 when I signed up in order to take a Codecademy course about the Twitter API, and had avoided the podcast medium entirely because people were constantly discoursing about this or that heinous personality, so I was left with a question about why there were so many willing to do it: Why do podcasters seemingly hate themselves almost as much as the old academy of media grifters (and the new generation hellbent on preserving this old boys’ club style media— everyone thinks they’re Bill Buckley on Firing Line, when they’re really just Matt Yglesias on his laptop in a Starbucks bathroom with a line forming outside, only to leave without tipping) seem to?
I’m not here to die on the hill that podcasts like Cumtown, Red Scare, or even Trueanon (co-host Brace Belden is, to my knowledge, one of very few leftist podcasters to actually fight—as in shoot bullets at- fascists oppressing a vulnerable population) are paragons of leftist purity; I will, however, say you cannot deny that there’s a void for normal people, who do a wide variety of things in their day jobs, with something to say to have these discussions, and as their various communities, and the discourse around them on sites like Twitter have demonstrated, these are things people are either eager to hear, engage with themselves, or simply ingest for further consideration. Also, they’re just interesting to listen to— ever listened to a five hour breakdown of the role of the CIA in the Kennedy Assassination? How Iran-Contra fallout has basically shaped every materially impactful aspect of our political reality in 2020? Boy, do I have a podcast for you. But more directly, you have the “normal” people from any given discipline effectively publishing, rather than languishing under dogma of their respective fields, having these discussion for the people who these things impact; journalists out-of-band of their publications, economists, historians, comedians, cultural critics, etc.
In The Pale King, David Foster Wallace (perhaps, ironically in this case, the most “cop” mind bogus iconoclast of the last half century) wrote, “Routine, repetition, tedium, monotony, ephemeracy, inconsequence, abstraction, disorder, boredom, angst, ennui — these are the true hero's enemies, and make no mistake, they are fearsome indeed. For they are real.”— these are the things that will cramp even the most serious of minds in the marathon of parsing the average news day in the United States. It takes an exceptionally passionate and bold, not disciplined or particularly networked, personality to spend hours doing what is fundamentally under-valued in our media culture where, if a commentator isn’t paid a lot, or at least works for an outlet that makes a lot (and then underpays their contributors), it isn’t worth hearing. I suspect this is what many find grating about podcasters, to say nothing of those of serious material consequences for the ruling class like whistleblowers who choose to leak to the Assanges of the world rather than the corporate media, or “up the proper channels” of their respective institutions who would, surely, never let such a wrong go unaccounted for.
What stops most from pursuing this line of information dissemination, if they are not of the class to access the elite institutions, is, again, as Wallace suggests of the bureaucracy in The Pale King:
“The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor. It was theatre. The grand gesture, the moment of choice, the mortal danger, the external foe, the climactic battle whose outcome resolves all--all designed to appear heroic, to excite and gratify and audience. Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality--there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth--actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.”
Do you act in the interests of the public (whether or not this can be self-serving, or somehow benefit or elevate you is not the question being asked here) because you believe what you say can have import or you can facilitate an action that does, or do you simply decline because you can’t live up to your own expectations of being a Great Mind because other Great Minds beat you to it? The last supposition is one I struggle to ever accept as legitimate because, well, it’s a function of a complete rejection of merit and effort, and acceptance of the benefits of being well-connected— I’d rather hear a good thinker break down information in real-time and do it critically than I would have such a breakdown manufactured from curated facts by an editorial board beholden to a corporation whose shareholders have a vested interest in creating a narrative around.
This isn’t a comparison of the impact of whistleblowers, publishers, podcasters, and activists, but an indictment of the “poverty of imagination” in what consitutes media worth processing—curated by some producer, responding to focus groups, seeking primarily (first and foremost) to tap into outrage, hardly seems like a critical, judicious, and good faith approach to examining current events for public-interest-minded consumption. Curation isn’t bad, but the motives for, and the methods of, doing so are crucial to examine.
In The Dark Side of the Dialectic: Toward a New Objectivity, Alvin Gouldner supposes:
“[Having rational grounds for believing in the truth of specific assertionsabout the social world, we must suppose them to have beenproduced by certain kinds of people] means that in order to have rational grounds for believing in the truth of certain world-referring assertions, we must also havesome knowledge of how the social system of scholars must beorganised for its work; it means we must have some grounds forconfidence that the social system of science is working as it should,effectively sanctioning conformity with methods aiming at thefulfilment of its criteria. If, for instance, we see a community ofscholars using a reasonable method to appraise the truth value ofassertions about the world, but if this community has an internal structure placing disproportionate power in the hands of entre-preneurs or commissars, if it is subject to venal temptations orvulnerable to coercion and terror, then it would be prudent todoubt the warrantability of this intellectual community’s specific assertions, even though its formal methods and criteria wererationally defensible. For they may be cheating or unduly givingthemselves the benefit of the doubt, interpreting ambiguousoutcomes in conformity with their wishes and needs.”
You must, if you are a devotee of “objectivity”, inasmuch as it can exist in media for example, consider the people producing, to whom they are beholden, what tolerances for this sort of conflict of interest the society into which it is being produced, and what societal frameworks it upholds. I think, as consumers, there’s also a premium by these interest parties in preventing you from being self-aware, and these independent outlets, these content creators, whatever, doing these things thing out-of-band encourage a certain amount of parasocial interaction, but also an outlet to engage with the medium and the messenger.
In an episode of the Red Scare podcast from earlier in the summer, Anna Khachiyan, one of the hosts of Red Scare made the argument that acknowledging a stated reality about something problematic is not an automatic approval or glamorization of that thing. It was an interesting sentiment, almost Machiavellian; if one wanted to become the type of social grifter cashing in on current events, all they’d need to know is embrace that understanding, and apply it to producing Content™, with some measure of sincerity, but mostly formulaic to be appealing some some willing audience somewhere. It’s almost as if by internalizing this thinking (seeming to project the show as being marketed to scumbags), Anna and her co-host Dasha have created a show that is very rich in analysis, casual banter, and it’s produced a rabid (“mentally ill” as Dasha puts it) community on Reddit that couldn’t seem to actually disagree more with the content of the episodes, but then producing absolutely unhinged stuff like this:
It’s incoherent, it’s irreverent, but ultimately, it’s discourse. That the discussion tends not to matter is unimportant, the framework is there to expand upon; the import of such a framework is beyond invaluable for challenging a corporatist nation-state media culture, and many have begun to do this (the Grayzone is a good example of independent journalists simply creating an outlet; Wikileaks is an example of rejecting the premise that an outlet must exist as a product, and could just be a platform for submissions and releases of information with overlaid context), podcasts are just the casual expression of said framework, and still has tremendous value in developing it further because, frankly, conflict and (re)examining beliefs is important, even if one can telegraph the outcome of such a discussion without summary dismissal.
It’s genuinely fascinating to me, for example, that this podcast produced a community of people seemingly very at odds with the hosts’ views, but this is also partly due to their habit of bringing on guests that range from the mildly cringe, but predictably politically situated online personality of Kantbot, to the morally repugnant, demonstrably malicious like Steve Bannon. What was fascinating is that in the case of the former (the Bannon thing was so far back in the episode list that I didn’t bother checking), it was like reading a Twitter thread where some edgelord was planning to try to stick it to some broads, and ended up getting dogwalked for much of the episode (albeit in a good faith debate, I felt). One can argue they shouldn’t be platforming people like this, if they, indeed, disagree so vehemently or have much to debate or otherwise just engage with without necessarily endorsing or not, and perhaps they shouldn’t, but we’re also living in a culture where the influence of podcasts could not be less consequential, and ultimately, who in the media is bothering to ask tough, critical questions of these people? The corporate media surely isn’t, and neither are many of the more social-climbing-minded independent presses (seeking those MSNBC jobs in a half dozen years or so) in any meaningful way that doesn’t come across as patronizing for the audience’s sake, without really forcing the subject to deconstruct their views for the audience; in this format, it’s less about giving them a platform as it is meaningful deconstruction how, and why, it’s as much the sort of propaganda as the guests claim their views are teaching to protect their own followers from.
Maybe I find this difference compelling because it feels more like cultural criticism of media-made consumable nuggets of narrative to be consumed wholesale, than it does a traditional interview; this (not from Red Scare specifically, but self-produced media like podcasts, generally), both, seemingly exposes corporate media for manufacturing “consensus” on something, but also without really explaining how or why this happened, and challenging it makes you a detractor. Many podcasters (most of whom are, at least nominally, leftists), for example, have said they often cringe at identifying as a podcaster professionally, amongst other doing the discourse, and sure, the format carries that connotation, but I think the democratization of having a platform like this, to a certain extent, is a case for the medium, and against the sort of elitism in fields like publishing, where self-publishing work is seen as invalidating, and running an independent press, or be a part of zine culture is only considered valid until you compare it to someone getting paid by a “real” media outlet, and the online liberal inteligentsia cannot stand that people they don’t like can not only have something to say, but they get paid a lot by individuals to say it. The ability to create content and gain exposure in 2020 still has many barriers, but the logistics of getting an episode of a podcast (for example) online, creating a subscription platform, firing up a Discord server to build a community are almost a complete triviality; imagine the opposite of trying to start an independent record label in the 1980’s, where the lack of infrastructure is so complete, business ultimately subsumed the ability to actually produce music as a top priority, but only ever release because of a virtual lockout from even mid-tier record labels with any meaningful distribution making it a necessity (Black Flag and SST Records is an example of this) if one wants to be heard.
The critics in defense of institutions are, as you might guess, of this media grifter class I described earlier; they’re paid a lot of money, and their resumes are their identities— because of a presence on platforms signifying X, Y, and Z about their (alleged) politics, you’re meant to assume they’re credible as an extension of that institution, rather than the other way around. This is true of even smaller outlets, but with the approval of even more mainstream influencers in the media; Vox is an example of this. The content can be insightful and good, and still come from a place no more valid than a well-researched post someone makes on Medium or their own blog— the issue is that we’ve outsourced the ability to think critically to media figures moralizing on Twitter as a function of their belief in the objectivity and inherent quality of their paid work on other platforms. This implies something incredible about their internalized elitism; what must they think of freelancers, their profession, and perhaps most tellingly, the public?
Podcasting is, ultimately, not a super materially impactful example of this point I am trying to make, but it is a ubiquitous one. To return to Wikileaks one more time, consider that the outrage, post-Collateral Murder (a video in which US military personnel are murdering journalists on camera with a sickening amount of casualness) from the mainstream media and pundits wasn’t about the footage, but about how it was obtained, how it was released, and who gave it to them— this effect only grew with release of additional logs, diplomatic cables, etc. revealing all manner of corruption, and the discourse never quite could recover from the institutions of corporate media and halls of government saying the content didn’t matter, but the methodologies, despite revealing a horrifyingly violent and malicious truth (for which now Assange is basically being tortured during trial in a UK prison notorious for prisoner suicide), were so abhorrent to warrant suppression of the truth, but also the prosecution of the actors involved in revealing it at all.
My point in connecting these things is to suggest that it is, indeed, with anyone’s power to say a thing, do a thing, publish a thing, and the Web was a tool built using an imperialist Internet to subvert the intention and produce an efficient, accessible means of—you guessed it- disseminating information, and early Internet culture speaks to this deep desire for democratization; we’re at a place where the tools have reached that ambition, and all we can seemingly do, as a society, is wait for the permission from the top to take it as seriously as is appropriate.
Ultimately, to the ruling elites of all manner of institution, you are the right side of an equality sign in the formula for marketing content, not news or analysis, but something uniquely engineered to outrage you for their ends, not because it actually offends you or brings you to action. As Wallace, once again, says in The Pale King, “The assumption that you everyone else is like you. That you are the world. The disease of consumer capitalism. The complacent solipsism.”— this is how institutions wish you to see yourself when they, not your awareness, are threatened by the democratization of building an audience, a platform, anything not sanctioned from the top down.
Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending: