No One Can Say: Context/Contest (OAG #3)

In a piece click-baitingly entitled “Trump Doesn’t Just Benefit From ‘Fake News’ Sites; He Is One,” Max Read, whose name must be either a nom de pixel or a serendipity, makes a general observation about social media:

[S]ocial media as an activity isn’t only about distributing information to one’s peers. It often isn’t about that at all. Generally, we post on social media as a way of establishing an identity in a crowded online environment, and in the hopes of receiving some degree of validation in the form of “engagement” — likes, comments, shares. So not only does “consuming information” (or, you know, “reading”) become less and less often distinguishable from “distributing information,” those two activities become wrapped up in the public shaping of individual identity. The news-media economy, in which a small number of publishers competed to deliver new information to a large number of readers, is in the process of being swallowed into a much larger media economy, in which hundreds of millions of functionally identical publishers compete with each other for attention from each other in an environment whose chief function isn’t the dissemination of information, but socially performed identity formation.

In the next paragraph, the concluding one of the post, Read proceeds from getting the matter rather right to, in my view, getting it entirely wrong:

This is, uhh, extremely weird, at best. Traditional news organizations, to state the obvious, are not built to survive an economy like that. You know who is, though? Politicians.

The entire wrongness is in the claim that there is something “weird” about so-called “social media” functioning chiefly as “socially performed identity formation” rather than for the purpose of “dissemination of information.”

Everyone’s identity formation is literally information, while a meaningful difference between one’s “performance” of it and its actuality or supposed actuality may be difficult or impossible to demonstrate – not that it is impossible to dissemble, but the moment I begin to dissemble I take on as part of my “identity formation” the character of a dissembler: We are at least also who we turn out to be, not or not just whoever we may imagine or have imagined ourselves to be.

More to Read’s main argument, however, this duality of intention in social media, the intention to in-form as well as to per-form, is inherent in every act of communication. There is nothing wrong or “weird,” much less “extremely weird,” about “socially performed identify formation” as the or a chief or primary and initial function of “social media” or of any other media. Indeed, the term “social media” is equally redundancy and misnomer: All media are social media, or all media like all modes of communication either are “social” or not mediated or communicated at all. We are always participating, whether speaking or listening, in the re-definition and realization, or “performance,” of identity in a simultaneously defined and realized society-in-fact, or “social” context/contest. At the same time, what we call “social media” are, as Read’s own analysis suggests, the least authentically “social,” least graspably “socialized,” flagrantly anti-social and objectively de-socializing media of all media.

The problem, the problem of our “post-truth” or Trumpian epoch, the moment of President Troll, what causes our intellectual life to feel “extremely weird” to us, is the impairment both of information dissemination as well as of identity performance, since they are different but interdependent.

One shouts fire in the actually burning building to warn one’s fellows of the danger, but also to be, in their eyes and in one’s own, the one who warned or one who did not fail to warn. Our current moment leaves each of us to “perform” whatever self we might hope to discover in a dark and vacant theater, the show having closed long ago. We wonder if we only imagined it was ever open. We or more of us than we suspected – a muster that will in time include many for now wrapped up in shock, and grief, and fear, and rage, and despair, seeing at best only the glimmers of new or renewed possibility – have welcomed or will welcome, will someday come to love the fire for revealing who if anyone is in fact out there.


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4 comments on “No One Can Say: Context/Contest (OAG #3)

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  1. Yeah, after reading this both maximally and minimally, I want to yell into a bullhorn “Step away from the theorizing!”

    It’s kinda like the perennial theorizing that we live in a computer simulation. Confusion and infinite regress combine to form a poor foundation for insight.

    btw when I clicked on the “No One Can Say,,” title of my email version of the post, I was sent to a page on your site saying the page could not be found.

    • I’d need you to forward me the email you received in order to suss out the problem, but I suspect it may have had something to do with correcting the date of the post.

      As for the suggestion on theorizing, I think I’ll have to thank you for reading, but reject both the comparison to computer simulation theorizing and the invitation to step away from what I’m starting with this post, which is only the first of a 3-part sub-series within a new longer series. If you’re not inclined to bear with me on it, that’s up to you!

  2. sorry, my “this” in “after reading this” was disantecedent. The “this” I meant was Mr Read’s piece, not yours, which I agree with and look forward to its postcedents.

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Noted & Quoted

This is a Waterloo moment for Trump, the tea party and their alliance.  They have been stopped in their tracks not only by Democratic opposition but because of a mutiny within their own ranks. Although never particularly liked or respected, it is now clear that they are no longer feared. The bankruptcy of their ideas and their incompetence have been exposed. Their momentum has been dissipated. Their rejection of political norms has itself been scorned. Our long national nightmare may finally be coming to an end.

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One seasoned Democrat told me that among the reasons Trump won in 2016 was that a long year of Crooked Hillary talk, about emails and Goldman Sachs and the like, had steadily demoralised and demobilised the liberal base. If sustaining fury at Trump helps keep those same voters energised, so they eventually turn out to defeat him, it’ll be worth it, he says.

But it can’t just be in the form of world-weary, if witty, tweets. What’s needed is a coherent argument, one that explains why Trump’s repulsive behaviour matters. For Americans, that will surely centre on the state of their society. The civic realm is being degraded by Trump’s lies, vanities and insults. The national conversation is being coarsened. The basic democratic assumption, that disagreements can be resolved through discussion rather than coercion and violence, is being eroded from the very top. Note the language of Scaramucci’s outburst: “I want to fucking kill all the leakers.”

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[C]limate scientists have a strange kind of faith: We will find a way to forestall radical warming, they say, because we must.

It is not easy to know how much to be reassured by that bleak certainty, and how much to wonder whether it is another form of delusion; for global warming to work as parable, of course, someone needs to survive to tell the story. The scientists know that to even meet the Paris goals, by 2050, carbon emissions from energy and industry, which are still rising, will have to fall by half each decade; emissions from land use (deforestation, cow farts, etc.) will have to zero out; and we will need to have invented technologies to extract, annually, twice as much carbon from the atmosphere as the entire planet’s plants now do. Nevertheless, by and large, the scientists have an enormous confidence in the ingenuity of humans — a confidence perhaps bolstered by their appreciation for climate change, which is, after all, a human invention, too. They point to the Apollo project, the hole in the ozone we patched in the 1980s, the passing of the fear of mutually assured destruction. Now we’ve found a way to engineer our own doomsday, and surely we will find a way to engineer our way out of it, one way or another. The planet is not used to being provoked like this, and climate systems designed to give feedback over centuries or millennia prevent us — even those who may be watching closely — from fully imagining the damage done already to the planet. But when we do truly see the world we’ve made, they say, we will also find a way to make it livable. For them, the alternative is simply unimaginable.

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+ BTW, I recently upgraded some this and that on the back end of the blog, and it does seem to make comments post much faster [. . .]
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For WordPress self-hosted people, there is already a "restore legacy editor" plugin, even though Gutenberg hasn't been installed yet as the default.

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+ I thought you were on WordPress.com, not self-hosted WordPress. I can't find any info on WordPress.com and Gutenberg or Gutenbergerish editing, so I don't know [. . .]
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