I got a glimpse, via my Facebook feed, of what appeared to be measured response of horror in the wake of Steve Stephens’ “Facebook Live” murder of Robert Goodwin Sr. on Easter. While I’ve been holed up within my own obligations and not paying too much attention to “mainstream” news or coverage of the event, I can’t really speak to the national response. That being said, in the very general sense, it seems as though the response was less than what I expected – less fatalistic, less enraged, less sensational. Not sure if that represents anything at all..but it did lead me on a thread.
In recent weeks I’ve been reading Whitney Phillips’ book “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture,” and she makes some helpful observations – first, that “Lulz is engaged by internet users who have witnessed one major economic/environmental/political disaster too many.” Second, that in the wake of 9/11 “Americans were asked to dissociate. They were asked not to dwell on the consequences of the wars, of torture, of the resulting economic bloodletting. They were asked to go on vacations, and to shop, and to not ask too many tough questions. Is it any surprise, then, that trolls- who essentially function as cultural dung beetles – would hold the tragedy of others at arm’s length? Is it any surprise that trolling…following a series of massively mediated tragedies, would be explicitly and unapologetically fetishistic?” And lastly, that “regardless of how aberrant (and/or abhorrent) it may appear, trolling makes a great deal of sense within the context of contemporary American media.”
Ultimately, while the behavior of trolls are so often targeted and characterized as these indications of moral decline in younger generations, Phillips argues that within the context of media – trolling is an understandable, if not logical, response to media culture (or contemporary culture informed by media) relying on sensationalism, spectacle, success, and profit (monetary and cultural). Trolling reflects behavioral norms displaced, exposed in new social contexts, amplified by new media affordances and media narratives, feeding off of the attention gained from media coverage, and motivated by the same exploitative appeals that motivate media coverage. That is – two sides to the same coin.
Elsewhere, in his 2009 book “The Fragile Absolute,” Slavoj Zizek in his meandering prose, discusses the “void of the thing,” or, how sublimation hides the fact that behind the representation of some idealized aesthetic object/subject lies the abhorrent object itself, an unadorned, unmediated, actuality. He draws upon Courbet’s “Le Origine du Monde” to illustrate his point: “Courbet masterfully continued to dwell on the imprecise border that separates the sublime from the excremental: the woman’s body in ‘L’origine’ retains its full erotic attraction, yet it becomes repulsive precisely on account of this excessive attraction. Courbet’s gesture is thus a dead end, the dead end up traditional realist painting…In other words, with Courbet, we learn that there is no Thing behind its sublime appearance – that if we force our way through the sublime appearance of the Thing itself, all we will get is the suffocating nausea of the abject.”
So, using realist representations of feminine beauty as an example, Zizek argues that what these paintings were hinting at is ultimately the pornographic – that is the fantasy these representations tease, however masterful the painting. To be clear, from an art history/art crit standpoint, this position could easily be challenged. This particular excerpt in within a larger text that is not interested in art criticism. However, I do think that Zizek’s analysis, combined with Phillips’ analysis of trolling, offers a helpful framework to think about the spectacle and tragedy of Steve Stephens. The two analyses constitute a contemporary context informed by a creeping, dramatized, nihilism-lite, one populated with false flags; the very basic desire for murder (in the figurative, or Leonard Cohen, sense of the word) dressed up in some aesthetic or culturally trimmed disguise that obscures a more destructive or unimpressive logic. Murder is not new, nor is commodification of different characteristics that could loosely be considered “human nature.” Spectacle gains a lot of mileage – and the Stephens event is spectacle. As Guy Deboard wrote, “the spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains and ultimately expresses nothing more than its wish for sleep.”
The Stephens event is not the terminal end before a cultural reset, it’s the entrenched pattern of life in late capitalism. While the actual event is tragic and complex, the mediated spectacle is algorithmic output. It’s not about an increasing degree of extremes exploited by content producers. It’s about the dead end of meaning, the dead end of our ability to grasp the event from any cohesive static foundations of moral reference against which to utilize, understand, or process meaning. We want it to be deep, we want to ascribe to this event some cultural diagnosis – but there’s nothing there.
I guess this is my own attempt to conceptualize this event somehow – and I can only seem to do so theoretically, not necessarily poetically. In one sense, there’s really no logical thread to trace that offers a satisfying explanation (satisfying in the sense that it offers some degree of closure).