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    Book Tour: The Medium Is the Message, Not the Messiah

    Conscience and Community from Occupy Wall Street to Unionizing

    Phil Christman

    May 15, 2020
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    • Adam

      I enjoy reading these reviews by Phil Christman. Thanks to him for writing them. I wanted to point out that the byline which reads, "Book Tour is a bimonthly review of new titles by Phil Christman, each exploring a theme to trace hidden connections among books and writers", contains a dangling modifier. It should read, "Book tour is a bimonthly review by Phil Christman of new titles, each exploring a theme to trace hidden connections among books and writers", shouldn't it? Otherwise it seems as if Phil is writing books bimonthly and then reviewing his own books. That would be impressive to say the least. I also don't know if the comment sections is the place to say all of this. Thanks for your stellar content, Plough.

    Book Tour is a bimonthly review by Phil Christman of new titles, each exploring a theme to trace hidden connections among books and writers.


    One of the cruelest paradoxes of our current media environment is this: he who cares, loses. To care, after all, is to need, and while need can be filled, it cannot simply be watched. Our innate instinct to help is too strong for us to just sit there, so boredom, exasperation, contempt, sentimentality arise like antibodies. The starving village is unbearable to witness until the coiffed TV newsman walks through it, his face composed in a solemn mask. (They call them “anchors” for a reason.) And his solemnity irks us, and the village becomes a meme, a joke. On TV, on social media, on any of the channels by which our society talks to itself, any person who genuinely stakes themselves to the outcome of a debate – or was born already staked – is thus mockable.

    Caleb Crain’s 2019 novel Overthrow contains, among many other things, a scene that brilliantly illustrates how this works. (The novel was published last fall, and the paperback is scheduled – what a tragicomedy that word now seems – for this summer.) The book is set around 2011 and concerns a group of Occupy Wall Street protestors who may be telepaths. Do the characters actually believe they have telepathy? Are we meant to believe they do? Among the many accomplishments of this novel is to illustrate just how complex an act “belief” is, how many layers it may contain of not believing, believing as-if, believing-in-spite-of, believing-in-another’s-belief. These exquisitely layered states both matter supremely, insofar as this group of idealists want to build a better world from scratch, and not at all, insofar as they are rendered irrelevant in the existing world. It’s a Philip K. Dick plot as experienced by Henry James characters.

    When this group of friends and sometime lovers, who call themselves the Working Group for the Refinement of the Perception of Feelings, bluff their way into a computer owned by a private security firm with which the government has contracted, they attract the hostile scrutiny of the state and federal government, the press, and, at one point, hackers, who deface their website with slurs and swastikas. The hackers refer to the Working Group via an expletive that, in everyday speech, is usually a homophobic slur, but that in internet parlance is used specifically to mock people for having cared about something. While one of the friends tries to fix the website, another asks a question that will resonate with anyone who has ever been trolled: “Is there anything that you can want, in the world that these people live for, without being a f-- for it?” Another answers him: “Lulz, I think.”

    Indeed. On the internet, lulz rule everything, though anyone not terminally online can be forgiven for not knowing the term. Urban Dictionary describes it as a “corruption” of the common abbreviation lol (for “laughing out loud”). “Lulz,” unlike “lol,” carries the implication that the laughter happened a) in front of a screen and b) at someone else’s expense. If the wind knocks someone’s hat off and he chases it, you might lol. If you hack a drone, use it to knock the man’s hat off, and then, while he stands there hatless, dive-bomb his face repeatedly: that’s lulz. It’s a term that appears often on the sorts of toxic message boards where posters delight in stoking sadness and fear among minorities, those in any need or danger. This is not the mainstream internet, but it’s a behavior the internet encourages, and now that social life is so online, it matters more than ever.

    “The four horsemen of the digital apocalypse will be called Convenience, Security, Innovation, and Lulz,” writes L. M. Sacasas in The Frailest Thing, a compilation of his writings on technology. Sacasas is a teacher and scholar of technological history whose work, aside from his blog and newsletter, appears most frequently in The New Atlantis. To read the entries chronologically is to watch him get his bearings on the subject and evolve into a fair, judicious, but pointed social critic.

    “The four horsemen of the digital apocalypse will be called Convenience, Security, Innovation, and Lulz.”

    Sacasas ranges over many topics, but his basic concern is with the ways media shape one’s sense of, and performance of, selfhood. He writes in the tradition of Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, Jacques Ellul, and the Bill McKibben of Age of Missing Information (1992), a little-remembered, brilliant book for which McKibben watched an entire day’s worth of cable TV – every channel. Sacasas is a worthy heir to these writers; his analyses of the ways that social media fails us, the way it warps our political conversation, convict and convince. To standard platitudes used to ward off techno-skepticism, such as the old “we have always been cyborgs” and “look, people were worried about new technologies during [year]” bits, he notes that the first point is vacuous and the second merely an example of the ways we accommodate our own misery.

    Yet the pieces in The Frailest Thing that have most affected my own thinking are about a somewhat older technology: the camera. Writing about Google Photo, which automatically tags, sorts, and saves your photos, he asks how such a “surfeit of memory” will change our approach to the act of remembering itself:

    We can no longer relate to how Roland Barthes treasured his mother’s photograph; we are more like Andy Warhol, obsessively recording all of his interactions and never once listening to the recordings. . . . Google’s answer to the problem of documentation, that it takes us out of the moment as it were, is to encourage such pervasive and continual documentation that it is no longer experienced as a stepping out of the moment at all. The goal appears to be a state of continual passive documentation in which case the distinction between experience and documentation blurs so that the two are indistinguishable. The problem is not so much solved as it is altogether transcended. To experience life will be to document it. In so doing we are generating a second life, a phantom life that abides in the Cloud.

    Late in Overthrow, we hear a tech company official speaking in precisely this way. Sharing his “vision” with a would-be investor, he rhapsodizes about a world so well-documented that “no one is ever lost.” Sacasas goes on to speculate that the appeal of such Cloud-life may consist in the fact that we can’t talk of it without seeming to conquer death: “As we generate this phantom life, this double of ourselves constituted by data, are we thereby hoping, half-consciously, to evade . . . our mortality?”

    Overthrow, like Occupy itself, is about competing utopias, competing visions of cloud-life. The members of Crain’s Committee for the Refinement of the Perception of Thoughts long to read each other’s minds because such an ability would constitute at once both a final, perfect medium and, in a sense, an end to media. Telepathy promises the kind of ecstatic unity that the seeming spontaneity and formlessness of the Occupy protests prefigured. And the neoliberalism that Occupiers resisted also holds out utopian promises: the convenience and security (and lulz) brought about by a perfectly informed market. The utopia of being known; the utopia of being known about.

    It seems obvious which of these imagined countries is winning the idea-war. Indeed, one of the pitfalls of reading media criticism – for me, at least – is that it engenders despair, along with the temptation of nostalgia. After reading Sacasas, or Ellul, or Postman, I feel that I have fully understood the death-bringing aspects of the dominant communication practices in my society, but also like I have nowhere else to go. These practices are, after all, dominant. These writers can convince me to watch less TV, or to deactivate, yet again, my Facebook; they can make me wish that everybody appreciated the greatness of print culture. But this only makes me feel that I have joined a minority of the correct, feckless, and swamped. Near-term, the best hope that I see for increasing the margin of space in which a healthier way of thinking and living and seeing oneself might emerge is to reduce the total power of the companies that make money from devising new ways to section out and sell off one’s inwardness. That sounds impossible.

    We will build a better world, if at all, together.

    In McLuhan, the great inspiration to many of these writers, one finds strange little suggestions that at the end of print culture, at the moment when the global village fully incorporates, we would find, miraculously, a kind of mystical wholeness and renewal. (McLuhan was an avid reader of the Jesuit heretic Teilhard de Chardin, who predicted a technological “noosphere” that would bring about the perfection of humanity.) The idea is farcical – Silicon Valley posthumanism before its time – but it has, at its core, a useful insight: the way through is collective. We will build a better world, if at all, together, and not only via the virtues – irony, skepticism, independence of thought – that print culture best embodies. (We will need these too, of course – the body needs all its members.)

    At the present moment, then, I am grateful both to another recent book, Jane McAlevey’s A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy (2020), and to a recent reissue, Vivian Gornick’s classic 1977 study The Romance of American Communism, for reminding me that the tools to address our circumstances already exist. And also for reminding me that there are other ways of talking to each other, other ways of being – for a labor union, or a truly effective political action group, is, among other things, a medium, a new way of organizing and sharing information and experience. It supplements and subverts and, if successful, replaces the messaging that comes from HQ. It uses whatever technologies capitalism makes available – the year that my lecturer’s union almost went on strike, I found myself using Slack, Twitter, email, even learning to make memes. But what it fundamentally relies on is face-to-face interaction: negotiations with management, one-on-ones with colleagues (I was too awkward to do many, but I tried), honest talks with friends.

    A Collective Bargain starts by summarizing McAlevey’s two earlier books on labor history and strategy. Her main theoretical innovation has been to treat the history of labor unions as part of the larger history of social-movement activism in the United States, connecting events such as the founding of the United Auto Workers and the organizing of the Montgomery bus boycott. Her major strategic insight is that contemporary workers are so often isolated that a successful union needs to target the entire community that surrounds a worker: don’t just organize the teachers, organize the parents showing up to collect their kids after school. Her case studies of successful strikes are detailed and heartening, and reminded me of the ways in which union activism made me feel like a part of a larger body, in ways that church, school, and work had (alas) basically always failed to do. 

    The Romance of American Communism helped me understand why that is, and should be read by anyone, of any political persuasion, who wants to build a community. Gornick lovingly describes an era when the American Communist Party – a project that I had always considered a failure, in that, well, Stalinism is bad – gave meaning and purpose to thousands of deeply oppressed people. It did so by wrapping itself up in people’s daily lives, meeting them at the places where they couldn’t help but go. For Americans, matters of belief, of fundamental commitment, are presented as choices, and every commitment we try to make feels a bit like play-acting: you walked into this story and can walk out of it. What you don’t have a choice about is living somewhere and working somewhere. And in your tenement, your workplace, you found the Communists, capital C, organizing food drives, sitting with you when you go to meet the super, telling you where the job leads were. The party didn’t worry about mission creep. If people needed it, the Communists tried to help provide it. The idea of an organization with that approach, but in the service of a moral vision better than Stalinism, sounds like a utopia in itself. 

    In the kingdom of God, the hand does not say to the foot, “Your department is redundant.” The toe does not say to the spleen, “Your unit is unprofitable.”

    One of the things such a movement, or union, or party, would need to do, of course, is to remember that it is no such thing. All these institutions exist to adjudicate conflicts that, in the kingdom of God, would never arise in the first place. In the kingdom of God, the hand does not say to the foot, “Your department is redundant.” The toe does not say to the spleen, “Your unit is unprofitable.” And an unsolved and unsolvable ethical dilemma lies at the core of these earthly organizations: when they are successful, they bring us slightly closer to a society in which people are treated as ends rather than means; but to get there, they have to treat everyone as a means. No good organizer respects boundaries. If you say, “I can do this for the union, but not that,” you can be sure that they will, somewhere in a metaphorical or actual notebook, write down, “Next step: get him to do that but not this.” They are fighting something so much bigger than themselves that they cannot afford to stop asking you for more – and besides, if they’re going to be this overworked, shouldn’t you be as well? A person whose union is in the middle of a pitched battle can be totally uninvolved, and therefore somewhat parasitic, or involved in a way that continually escalates. There is no in-between, though in practice most of us alternate: a year or two on, a year or two off. 

    This is no way to live. Under sin, there is no way to live. But in the weeks of lockdown, the memory of it, and the knowledge that it will be there to take up again in the future, is an unspeakable comfort to me. In a late chapter of McAlevey’s book, she lays out a strategy for a union-centered presidential campaign, and describes more or less what Bernie Sanders did. We will be told, at exhausting length, all the ways that this campaign failed, but it has already effected a revolution in the minds and characters and self-conceptions of many thousands of volunteers: all of those beautiful, phone-averse neurasthenics, making their brave, hesitant five or ten or thirty daily calls to strangers! That movement’s work has continued even as the presidential primary recedes; now some of those volunteers, with the help of the campaign, raise funds for charities that help Covid-19 patients.

    “A better world is possible,” as leftists often say to each other. But “better” is a continuum, not a dichotomy – as leftists often forget. A somewhat better world – better than it would have been without them – already exists because of the work these activists did and are doing. Friends of mine who don’t have union jobs, or causes, or thick communities, have nothing to look at but the national TV show – the battle of feigned social conscience against the master of lulz. But the real work, the real drama, the real conversations – they are all still happening. They are always still happening. To see them, you just have to look in the right places.

    Contributed By portrait of Phil Christman Phil Christman

    Phil Christman teaches first-year writing at the University of Michigan and is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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