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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).

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Crowdfunding has been a huge shot in the arm for the arts, especially for musicians like myself. It emerged in a period of crisis for the industry and artists and it reflected a double movement. On the one hand, the large players (i.e. major labels) lost some of their leveraging power. As technology has made it more feasible to produce content from the confines of bedrooms and living rooms, and the capabilities afforded by social media has made content dissemination and promotion cheaper and easier, the artist was indeed liberated and empowered. On the other hand, because the artist did not have to rely on traditional (constraining) channels to finance creation, production, and dissemination, he or she had to look elsewhere. The emergence of crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo provided a good way for artists to fund their projects, however, the platforms nurtured and benefited from a dynamic between fan and artist that had the potential for progress and regress. Progress because the fan and artist could more easily build a productive relationship that further undermined the need for corporate involvement. Regress because crowdfunding facilitated a one-way relationship capable of exploiting fan support under the guise of egalitarian rhetoric that emphasized value over cost. What emerged was an environment with massive potential and great vulnerability.

I see these vulnerabilities being manifested in two ways. 1) Obvious wrong doing on the part of crowdfunders (e.g. not fulfilling promises, high price points, and general forms of exploitation that are readily recognizable); 2) The proliferation of crowdfunding into various segments of society reinforce the process of neoliberalism that has long been at work. A vulnerability less easy to recognize (or perhaps criticize), but much more influential in relation to the negotiations of cultural values.

Neoliberalism has become a buzzword, but it is not always clearly defined. As one article antagonistically claimed — “’Neoliberalism’ has now morphed into a vague concept loaded with everything the left dislikes about market economics.” Honestly, that’s fair. So, let me try to define neoliberalism before moving on. I take from David Harvey ’s summation – that neoliberalism seeks to “bring [coerce] all human action into the domain of the market,” or more specifically, we can draw from Christian Fuchs who characterizes neoliberalism as the “dispossession of the commons in order to generate new spaces of accumulation and an intensified dispossession of income and wealth in order to raise profits.” This is accomplished by the creation a “legal framework for flexible wages and flexible working times,” the activation of “entrepreneurial thinking of the individual by creating new forms of self-dependence and self-employment, reducing unemployment benefits and welfare.”

One of Neoliberalism’s strengths is that it allows for a favorable rearticulation of certain cultural values in the service of market logic (we see this being played out in the gig economy). The contemporary fetishism over entrepreneurism has all but made it into a principle good, a moral value. It draws upon long standing cultural notions of individualism and work ethic, underscored by a free market ideology that understands economic productivity as the main goal. Indeed, embedded in the language of the neoliberal economy is an emphasis on flexibility, entrepreneurialism, and self-dependence. These three terms inform the ideological power of neoliberalism, and at the same time, signal inroads towards a restructuration that increases influence within the private sphere at the expense of the public sphere. As Zygmunt Bauman has written: “Public power has lost much of its awesome and resented oppressive potency, but it also has lost a good part of its enabling capacity.”

So when we consider that crowdfunding is being increasingly relied upon to fund public school classrooms, higher education research, town/state civic projects, and even Smithsonian exhibits, it calls into question the economic or social environment that necessitates this type of fundraising, i.e. private expenditure for public projects. The successes of certain crowdfunding projects, its novelty, and the opportunities for new modes of engagement that are often publicized across various blogs or news sites serves to redirect a critical glance away from critical questions that ask why private fundraising on the behalf of public school teachers, for example, is even necessary? Or, what are the potential implications that might develop from crowdfunding academic research? Even if we charitably assume that these are isolated instances rather than a reflection of problematic structural patterns, the increased need to crowdfund, i.e. to compensate for a lack of funding typically provided by state resources, may very well lead to budgetary policy that justifies the further withdrawing of state or federal resources motivated in part by the reported successes of crowdfunding projects. This article from Huffington post exemplifies this concern. While it briefly acknowledges the reason crowdfunding is needed, it ends by positing crowdfunding as a fix: “Luckily, though, crowdfunding sites are well positioned to shift the focus toward equity. Recent endorsements from celebrities, including Sheryl Crow and Stephen Colbert, lend credibility and help increase the numbers of people who use these sites.”

Thus, when we read about the success of crowdfunding campaigns that were launched to cover school costs, when we read about the un-coerced financial contributions from private citizens, it is celebrated as way to solve a particular problem, but it still fails to address the larger problem. Further, it reinforces the socio-economic patterns that continue to aggravate the wound – a neoliberal practice in which market logic becomes an “entire way of life, a common sense in which every action – crime, marriage, higher education and so on, can be charted according to a calculus of maximum output and minimum expenditure” (Michel Foucault), and within this process, our bodies, our minds, and our work, are reduced commodities that are only justified through formulations of cost and productivity. Thus, it crowdfunding justifies itself through its successes while simultaneously furthering its own need.

Crowdfunding is a powerful and productive tool with the potential to substantially impact standard practice in a positive way, but what happens if it becomes the standard practice?

Generally, one could be safe to assume that–

A. If one claims to be a conservative, then he or she would hold that the welfare state enables indolence, and rewards irresponsible behavior.

B. If one claims to be a liberal, then he or she would hold that the financial elite abuse their position and influence for selfish interests.

So there it is. Immediately, with no further analysis, one can notice a problem. One person is reacting to a false narrative which is nurtured by the problematic discourse that infects every major news network in America. Of course, this is just one aspect of a larger narrative which only serves to keep the public entrenched in a “debate” that is not even close to being focused on the heart of problem. Furthermore, that false narrative is simultaneously reinforced when one reacts to it with the predictable ammo which is..you guessed it..the other narrative. For as many types of people as there are in America, how can there be only two pervasive political molds to which we all must fit in order to be taken seriously?

It is a circus (That was confirmed the day I saw Joe the Plumber being given media attention after he decided to run for public office. The media has managed to turn one of the values of America into a mockery, into something regrettable.) Free elections, the right to assemble, the lively debates, and the social media outcries–it is all a part of a posture which encourages a “diversity” which is constantly undermined by the management and tightening of parameters. Distractions are used against us, distractions are given to us, fed to us, to make us feel like we’re taking part in a process which, while it directly affects us, is largely indifferent to us.

A protest is no long recognized as such, it is now a media event. The media immediately seizes upon the distractions and turns those distractions into the issue. A protest isn’t validated by their offering of a solution, the lack of solutions presented to us by those we elect is what validates a protest. A protest is not supposed to appoint a leader, an eloquent spokesperson to articulate a singular point, because there is no singular point. The grievance is a result of a monolithic, ubiquitous, problem which is so widespread it manifests itself into different problems for different people. It is thoroughly entrenched.

A protest is a tool to force attention. So logically, if one’s rights continue to be manipulated, selective, abused or ignored, then one will only resort to more dramatic means to be recognized. A protest is an individual expression, and if that individual can find a community through which he or she can become more visible, then he or she will do so. A protest isn’t a political party, it is not well thought out at its inception, it is disorganized, because a protest is a result of emotional frustration, helplessness, and fear.

We need to quit harping on what is spoon fed to us as if it is our own. We need to get to the bottom of ourselves and realize that we all we are are individuals trying our best. It is not fair, nor is it productive, to gauge an issue or complaint on the worst version of that complaint. I should not assume that every CEO is a thief who does not pay taxes, ships jobs off shore, and buys political support. Nor should I belief that every poor American is poor by his or her own laziness. I shouldn’t assume that a woman on welfare is a woman who uses welfare to support her drug habit. That type of thinking will only enforce that faulty narrative which is only a distraction from the real issue–the manipulation of the political process through financial influence. It is not partisan. A politician is vulnerable to a combination of two powerful forces–ambition and power, both of which are easily led off track by seemingly well meaning influences. Washington exists by its own machinery and answers only to itself. 

A person’s development is riddled with misguided expressions which occur as a result of ego. There are a number of causes which light fires under many types of people, but the causes are, in so many cases, secondary. Further down that road of development, a new self-defeating desire invades which serves to neutralize distractions in hopes of giving one serenity. Life is an unwinding and we finally put to bed one grand hope to make way for a more humble hope. Our existence, according to the fervor of youth, is a gradual decline which we foolishly hope to reverse; our existence, according to the complacency and embittering of age, is an anti-climatic autumn of beautiful and dormant “once upon a time’s.” It is, on the one hand, something very bothersome and melancholy; and it is on the other hand very peaceful. It’s as if the world is completely altered in the course of a few years. As Regina Spektor sings, “you’re young until you’re not.” Of course, there can be a condescension in claiming old age in comparison to the silly youth, and I do not intend that. What I’m suffering is the awakening to what was always the case, but what I supposed I was above. I am told that we all go through it, but that is not satisfying because, regardless of what I say, I want to make in impact. The more I try to claim about my own state of existence, the more I realize that I am not alone. For many, a solidarity with others could be comforting, for me, it is depressing. I enjoy having things in common with others, but my rabid insecurity demands recognition above and beyond! I wish to recognize community as an ornament, as a claim to my humility (a simultaneously paradoxical claim on my ego). Ahh, it’s truly pathetic, but even so, I can’t become unique. I merely blend in to the room of well dressed people furiously focused on their treadmills.  We’re all the same, some dress themselves better than others, some understand themselves better than others, some understand their role better than others, some know what they want, most don’t.

I think it’s best to refrain from being creative when emotionally inspired.

As humans, we are surprisingly incapable. Of course, there have been many grand feats accomplished by the glory and industry of mankind. It doesn’t take much research to look down the long list of inventions and ideas which have come to fruition as a result of this gloried tenacity and devotion. One can get all teary eyed reading an Ayn Rand novel–a beautiful adventure and victory of the human spirit, the drive, the good willed indifference, and the talent. Our thirst for advances of the mind, new technology, new art, new ideas to assuage human suffering, new versions of the categorical imperative spoken with a tone of regrettable condescension and dismissal of the spiritual, and let’s not forget the reverse of that–the appeal to spirituality for the cure all. (We have tragically forgotten the words of Pascal who gracefully made the case for the inclusion of both reason and faith).

But ultimately, we are essentially incapable. We know nothing of true value, because true value is masterfully hidden from us. True value is transformed to appear absurd and pathetic. The health of the soul is dismissed and made a mockery of. It’s so easy to become dramatic with grandiose appeals for cultural progress–peace, love, fairness to all people regardless of income, race, or faith. But what do we know of peace, love,  or fairness? We know nothing.  Despite our genuine attempts and well-meaning projects, the soul will remain eternally sick.  The soul cannot be cured through global initiatives, and until the soul is healed, these global initiatives will merely be coats of paint, a temporary fix, a reason for investment (All very necessary, and all fleeting). The value of these projects lies within the transformation of an individual. Success is not exclusively linked to achievement.

I’d like to ask what we are celebrating. The trenches of our psychology go untouched by large events that celebrate a good cause while inflating the wrong vessels.

(a narcissistic turn)

And me? I am no cure.

Ultimately, I am a weak individual who sees aspects of myself in everyone. I’m not even me. I would claim that I am not a true identity, just a creation of one, born from the conditions of my development. Each opinion I have can be traced rather easily to some passing event from my youth, or perhaps an eloquent book I read in college.

So therein lies the dilemma–I do not know myself. I do not know what I am capable of. I don’t know my soul. I do not know what drives me. I only know that I am a narcissist. I am selfish in that I seem to equate value and production. I am part of that new generation that can’t see the connection between hard work and success. I am part of that new generation that has successfully merged altruism, fashion, and ego–while leaving the soul out of the picture altogether.

“Every human existence not conscious of itself as spirit, or not personally conscious of itself before God as spirit, every human existence which is not grounded transparently in God, but opaquely rests or merges in some abstract universal (state, nation, etc.), or in the dark about itself, simply takes its capacities to be natural powers, unconscious in a deeper sense of where it has them from, takes itself to be an unaccountable something.”–Kierkegaard (SUD)