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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To take power, May had to pretend that she, too, dreams these impossible dreams. And that led her to embrace a phony populism in which the narrow and ambiguous majority who voted for Brexit under false pretences are be reimagined as “the people.”

This is not conservatism—it is pure Rousseau. The popular will had been established on that sacred referendum day. And it must not be defied or questioned. Hence, Theresa May’s allies in The Daily Mail using the language of the French revolutionary terror, characterizing recalcitrant judges and parliamentarians as “enemies of the people” and “saboteurs.”

This is why May called an election. Her decision to do so—when she had a working majority in parliament—has been seen by some as pure vanity. But it was the inevitable result of the volkish rhetoric she had adopted. A working majority was not enough—the unified people must have a unified parliament and a single, uncontested leader: one people, one parliament, one Queen Theresa to stand on the cliffs of Dover and shake her spear of sovereignty at the damn continentals.

...Brexit is thus far from being a done deal: it can’t be done without a reliable partner for the EU to negotiate with. There isn’t one now and there may not be one for quite some time—at least until after another election, but quite probably not even then. The reliance on a spurious notion of the “popular will” has left Britain with no clear notion of who “the people” are and what they really want.

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The most extraordinary paragraph in this op-ed, however, is this one:

The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.

...First — and this is so obvious I can’t believe I have to type out these words — the United States can’t simultaneously proclaim “America first” and then claim any kind of moral strength. Saying loudly and repeatedly that American values are not going to be a cornerstone of American foreign policy strips you of any moral power whatsoever.

The second and bigger problem is that the “embrace” of a Hobbesian vision of the world by the most powerful country in the world pretty much guarantees Hobbesian reciprocity by everyone else. Most international relations scholars would agree that there are parts of the world that fit this brutal description. But even realists don’t think it’s a good thing. Cooperation between the United States and its key partners and allies is not based entirely on realpolitik principles. It has helped foster a zone of stability across Europe, North America and the Pacific Rim that has lasted quite some time. In many issue areas, such as trade or counterterrorism or climate change, countries gain far more from cooperation than competition.

Furthermore, such an embrace of the Hobbesian worldview is, in many ways, anti-American.

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The rise of the military, if coupled with the undermining of civilian aspects of national power, demonstrates a spiritual exhaustion and a descent into Caesarism. Named after Julius Caesar — who replaced the Roman Republic with a dictatorship — Caesarism is roughly characterized by a charismatic strongman, popular with the masses, whose rule culminates in an exaggerated role for the military. America is moving in this direction. It isn’t that some civilian agencies don’t deserve paring down or even elimination, nor is it that the military and other security forces don’t deserve a boost to their financial resources. Rather, it is in the very logic, ideology, and lack of proportionality of Trump’s budget that American decline, decadence, and Caesarism are so apparent.

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CK MacLeod
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+ (Well, I didn't, four years ago, call Daniel Larison a vulgar ideologue. I suggested that his polemic on that occasion stooped to that level, in [. . .]
note on anti-Americanist conservatism in re Obama in Israel
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+ Thanks, Mr. McK. I don't see the Rs in any better a position, nor the independents for that matter. All the People's Political Scientists and [. . .]
Jennifer Rubin: Pro-Trump Republicans will get nothing, not even retention of a House majority – The Washington Post
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+ It's a common tactic in scholasticism (vide Edward Feser) to take a term of religio-philosophical significance (such as "creation" or "eternity") that has a commonly [. . .]
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