News as Human Interest Story; The Politics of Dead Children

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“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
-Karl Marx. 18th Brumaire

It is no longer our ancestors who most haunt us. If anything, they seem but pale spectres compared to the horror which afflicts us daily in every paper, on every news channel and site, torn from the restless grave to be conjured up again and again for so many indignant statuses and tweets: the ghosts of dead children.

And what is the political significance of these dead children whose countless lurid stories permeate any and every discussion of current affairs? Perhaps the fact that to even broach such a question feels horribly inappropriate and heartless is somewhat indicative: by virtue of their a priori innocence, the death of a child is the universal tragedy par excellence, for which no rationalization or justification can be offered.

This very true fact, however, has been subtly elevated into a deafening taboo on contextualization: a child’s death is so utterly beyond explanation that to even discuss, in any meaningful way, its particular conditions is taken as a loathsome muddying of a crime so purely despicable as to make desperate handwringing the only remotely acceptable response.

But, of course, children do die in particular circumstances– as do many men and women often elided by this discourse for lacking the same ability to shock and disturb. And they almost always do so under conditions which intentional human acts played a significant part in bringing about.

However emotionally unpalatable a terrain it may be to navigate, the discourse of dead children which dominates so much media coverage and public discussion, particularly of foreign affairs, must be soberly recognized for what it is: part and parcel of a concerted war on context. If theory strives to grasp particular events in their dialectical relationship to a historical totality, ideology offers us the, at best, sterile juxtaposition of pure particularities and hollow ‘universal truths.’

The potency and utility of this coupling of the event devoid of context on the one hand, and the empty universality of the cliche on the other, should not be underestimated: it is often mobilized towards a sort of reactionary synthesis of thought without abstraction and abstraction without thought– the culmination of which is perhaps best illustrated in what we might call the growing phenomenon of ‘news’-cum-’Human Interest Story.’

For quite some time, one could say with relative confidence that few modes of ‘journalism’ were more attractive to the savvy media mogul than that of “Human Interest Stories.” Simple, vapid, neutered– no one to offend, no sponsors to upset, and some saccharine sweet takeaway, always ‘non-partisan’ and commonsensical in the most ideological way: “Wow, forget the big stuff, a few simple good deeds on all our parts, really will make the world a better place!” But perhaps a human interest story’s most attractive characteristic is precisely what it is not: news.

Human Interest stories are journalism without content, non-events in any sort of world-historical sense and as such offer much more pliable clay than those stubborn facts about this or that tricky geopolitical issue. To wrangle up the details of some real, important issue into a narrative palpable for sponsor and ‘base’ alike is no easy task, particularly for those with, say, a conscience or vague concern for the truth– somehow, bless their souls, dedicated journos from the New York Times to CNN do these fardels bear. But a man saving a cat from a burning building, or someone defending a homeless person, or founding another masterbatory charity: these are supple subjects, liable to all sorts of narrativization and presentation.

There is, however, one unfortunate setback to Human Interest Stories, at least in their traditional form, which severely delayed their ascendance: however naively, many journalists have quite stubbornly insisted on being able to call the bulk of their work actual journalism; the population, too, has persistently held on to the notion that they want the news, or at the very least held on to the warm, self-affirming idea that they’re ‘aware’ and ‘up-to-date’– have held onto the idea, that is, that they would very much like to be the kind of person who reads the news. Even what would probably best be understood as journals of imaginative fiction, like the Daily News, still come packaged in that old Newspaper format– a sort of ironic anachronism, like how you can buy iPod Cases that look like cassettes.

Of late, however, it must be said: something better has indeed been found. Instead of merely replacing news with Human Interest stories, it may very well be accurate to suggest that we’ve entered the era of News as Human Interest story. News as the universal outrage of ‘dead children’. News as the timeless tragedy of the depoliticized ‘refugee’. News as executed journalists and the grief of their families. In short, News not as facts, nor even stories, but as cliche morality fables.

This mode of presentation fixates upon the ‘relatable’ ‘human’ element in the event– in its more left-oriented guises, often under the pretext of using this to stimulate empathy or identification that might be mobilized towards some vague future action. In reality, however, these real events, in all their concrete horror, become transmuted into empty tropes easily stripped of such ‘cynical’ and ‘cold’ analyses of their broader causes and reconstituted as empty tropes easily absorbed into the dominant ideology which masked and enabled their occurrence in the first place.

This is why decontextualization of this sort, it must be stressed, is not merely de-politicization, but re-politicization. If capital ‘vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks,’ the peculiar perversity of modern imperialism is its penchant for zombification: unsatisfied with leaving its victims mangled and lifeless, it re-animates and re-casts them as set pieces in narcissistic bourgeois morality plays.

This is why when the more virulently reactionary voices try to reduce Palestinian children to “little terrorists,” or inform us that unarmed teenage African American victims of police brutality are “no angels,” the left must resist the temptation to collapse in desperation into the liberal discourse of decontextualized innocent victims. Even the most cursory scan of one’s own twitter or facebook feed should be more than enough evidence of the fact that those of all sorts of liberal imperialist to reactionary political persuasions can join in the sanctimonious choruses impotently bemoaning these tragedies as such.

The whole framing must in fact be inverted: the geopolitical coordinates in which these tragic events occurred ought to be foregrounded, not made background noise, in our discussions of them; the melodramatic characterization of victims in terms of cliche archetypes not only repudiated but deemed irrelevant. The innocence or age of this or that victim of Israel’s wanton terror; the criminal record or lack thereof of the latest African American victim of the white-supremacist state– in short all these particular narratives which may be pulled in this or that direction (that is to say, between liberal and outright reactionary) have no bearing on the structural injustices of which the particular instances are particularly provocative manifestations.

The way in which we engage with ‘newsworthy’ events ought to be through the analysis of facts, not the consumption of stories steeped in ideology ripe for repurposing. There may be a certain practical utility to the striking anecdotes or statistics that are often absorbed into these discourses; their potential to do any good, however, hinges precisely on our ability to articulate them in the context of the politico-economic forces which undergird them.

What is more, these ‘victims’ which populate reports figuring either as the inhuman objects of reactionary contempt, or the helpless and innocent objects of impotent liberal pity, must be identified first and foremost as oppressed agents with a right to resist– which is to say, with a right not to be ‘innocent.’

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Whose Left?

Lenin Tribune. El Lissitzky. 1920
Lenin Tribune. El Lissitzky. 1920

To indulge oneself in writing yet another piece about the western ‘left’ and its prospects, or lack thereof, feels like a bit of a faux pas; to suggest some solutions, a real outrage. Who, after all, has the heart (or stomach) to read the latest indistinguishable Jacobin, N+1, or New Inquiry-esque article about such embarrassing a topic anymore? Nonetheless, the outpouring of articles along these lines is not without cause: we are lost, and profoundly so.

This is not, as some would have it, merely a function of ‘bad theory,’ or, at the very least, bad theory is not the primary source of the current situation; though academics of all stripes miss no chance to remind us that ‘[w]ithout revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement’, we must just as crucially recall what Marx informs us in The German Ideology:  “the existence of revolutionary ideas in a particular period presupposes the existence of a revolutionary class.”1

In fact, we might go so far as to suggest that in a peculiar, somewhat inverted fashion, our predicament is not unlike that of Feuerbach and the German “True Socialists,” addressed by Marx therein– even the tedious pretensions of Karl Grün and company to a ‘true socialism’ bathed in the edifying verbiage of the idealist German philosophy and thus free of what they saw as the crude, overly political formulations of those French actually engaging in class struggle at the time seems to ring uncannily familiar to anyone acquainted with the vaunted claims of so many Trotskyite micro-sects and the like– or, even more so, the specious pretensions of this or that grad school leftist fed on an all too strict diet of critical theory.

For, as Marx detailed, Germany’s relative backwardness, and thus their lack of a sufficiently developed working class with which intellectuals might form the relationship necessary for them to develop any sort of genuine “communist consciousness” — which, barring actual membership in the proletariat, can nonetheless arise, given the right conditions and a serious scientific commitment, out of the “contemplation of the situation of this class”2– gave rise to a so-called “socialism” which in reality served principally the needs of the “two most numerous classes of men in Germany” at the time: “the petty bourgeois with its philanthropic illusions and … its ideologists, the philosophers and their disciples.”3

Over the course of capitalism’s development, as the proletariat grows, and as the internal contradictions of capitalism progressively sharpen its antagonism with capital, revolutionary ideas arise from that struggle; to the degree, however, that such ideas are taken up by those who fail to orient themselves towards that class, they become misappropriated, co-opted, often even turned against themselves. Apropos, Aijaz Ahmad once very insightfully commented in an interview with Ellen Meiksins Wood on a certain very pernicious tendency in which :

… the more anti-bourgeois, and anti-colonial etc. one becomes, the less one talks about socialism as a determinate horizon. In the process, critiques of capitalism are also sundered from any necessity of working class politics. Indeed, one may use the word “bourgeois,” in a cultural sort of sense, but the word “proletariat” makes one distinctly uncomfortable, as if using such words is some kind of anti-social activity.” 4

Ahmad’s comments cut to the quick of a fundamental issue most evident, as he identifies it, in the ‘North American university’, but it must be stressed that the logic of his criticisms has profound implications for the left more broadly; for the opportunistic university leftists he assails are but a particularly obvious caricature of a much more widespread issue: the consequences of losing one’s orientation towards the proletariat, and consequently, the ‘determinate horizon’ of socialism which its existence entails.

There is a significant part of the western left which no doubt conceives of itself as in no way guilty of Ahmad’s charges: for countless Trots and other Marxists, Euro-communists, social-dems, Labourites, and even the odd Democrat, sincerely believe they are concerned with the working class– and this is precisely the problem, because the ‘workers’ towards which this left overwhelmingly orients itself is categorically not the ‘proletariat’ proper, but the labor aristocracy.

As recent interventions such as Bromma’s The Worker Elite and Zak Cope’s Divided World, Divided Class have helped to shed some desperately needed light on, the tremendous (and growing) gap between the lots of workers in the imperial core nations and periphery cannot be explained merely by the former’s historical militancy or greater productivity, and, perhaps even more crucially, their unwillingness to make revolution and tendency towards reformism cannot be ascribed to such activities’ successes, nor to ideological hegemony alone.

Rather, under fully developed imperialism in particular — rather than mere resource colonialism — a vast global transfer of surplus-value from super-exploited proletarian and semi-proletarian masses throughout the periphery to the core is enacted– and, crucially not merely to the ‘1%’ as common first-worldist populism generally suggests, but to a significant degree to large portions of those countries citizenry, even most of the organized workforce.

As Cope concludes from his rigorous study of the political economy of imperialism in Divided World, Divided Class, since “the amounts of super profits in the world economy exceeded the surplus-value produced by First World workers as a whole, the class interests of the latter could no longer be said to align with the socialist project.”5 Capitalists in the imperial core have historically been able to a) displace otherwise inevitable contradictions in the capitalist mode of production through constant expansion and primitive accumulation beyond their own borders and b) dissolve (temporarily) the antagonism between themselves and their own working classes through embourgeoisement and integration insofar as imperialist superprofits allow them to offer artificially high conditions to their domestic workers as the price of internal peace and stability, and even more fundamentally through the welfare state’s taxation or distribution of their wealth.

To recognize such facts is to recognize that the vast majority of western workers have a material stake in the ongoing imperialist project of their own nations– that they, so to speak, have very much more than chains to lose — and that any honest materialist must realize the implications of this fact: that most workers in the imperial core are not, at the current historical conjecture, a revolutionary class. It is not, after all, on moral grounds or sentimental appeals that Marxism posits the revolutionary nature of the proletarian proper (who, it must be remembered, likely include some 80% of the global working class), but because of their objective and irreconcilable antagonism with capital.

And it is precisely for this reason that the Western left, to the degree that it sincerely hopes to be any more meaningfully ‘left’ than Strasserism– that is to say, seeking only more egalitarian distribution of the exploited value of others within a parasitic class—, must ask themselves, not ‘who’s left?’, as seems to be the prevailing sensibility among those tedious leftists who wax nostalgic about the hay days of western labor militancy, and miss no chance to go on about their party or traditions historical relationship with those labor movements, the endless Owen Jones types blathering on about their credentials as ‘fourth generation socialists;” we must ask ourselves, whose left we are: in the interests of what class do we constitute ourselves as a genuinely progressive movement. This class cannot be the labor aristocracy, as their persistent chauvinism, first-worldism, and refusal of solidarity with the real global proletariat– the exploitation of which they materially benefit– has made all too clear.

We in the imperial core, are just as alienated from the proletariat as the German True Socialists of the 19th century, and as such we must with genuine scientific conviction analyze the real social makeup of our current historical totality– we must take up the, it must be said not only difficult but extremely uncomfortable task of seeking out the real proletariat wherever it exists. In large part, this means a much more serious solidarity with those movements in the periphery and semi-periphery– which, no doubt, will often be as offensive to lofty conceptions of pure socialism as the political movements of French workers in the 19th century were to their German counterparts, but vulgar third-worldism will hardly suffice. The whole labor-aristocratic edifice is built upon the stratification of workers in terms of race, creed, and gender, and internal colonies abound along such lines, particularly in the case of undocumented migrant workers.

Barba non facit philosophum; nor does a blue collar make a proletarian; nor, most certainly, does a red-flag and some tired rhetoric, divested of all real content or connection to its (previously) concrete basis, make a ‘left.’

1. Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The German ideology, Parts I & III. Mansfield, CT: Martino Publishing, 2011. p.40.

2. Ibid. p. 69.

3. Ibid. p. 81.

4. Wood, Ellen Meiksins. “Issues of Class and Culture: An Interview with Aijaz Ahmad.”Monthly Review: Oct 1996: 10.

5. Cope, Zak. Divided world, divided class: global political economy and the stratification of labour under capitalism. Montreal, Quebec: Kersplebedeb, 2012. p.256.

Lenin, by Langston Hughes

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Lenin walks around the world.
Frontiers cannot bar him.
Neither barracks nor barricades impede.
Nor does barbed wire scar him.

Lenin walks around the world.
Black, brown, and white receive him.
Language is no barrier.
The strangest tongues believe him.

Lenin walks around the world.
The sun sets like a scar.
Between the darkness and the dawn
There rises a red star.

Theses on the Listicle

 

Objectivity can only be the author’s and therefore subjective, even if he is editing a newsreel.” 

Andrei Tarkovsky. Sculpting in Time. 150.

.

I.

 

The Listicle is not a set of propositions to be controverted or debated. It presents itself as an accumulation of pure facts.

 

II.

 

The Listicle establishes no relationship between the reader and the author; in fact, it denies the latter’s very existence. The world of the listicle is the world of unmediated access to objective reality. Frequently, no authors at all are listed; when they are, it is more often than not as ‘staff’ or ‘contributors’—and why would it be otherwise? Their function, we are to believe, is essentially technical, not creative. The author never died, he just incorporated. Thus the author, henceforth no more than a brand, is credited on Buzzfeed as companies are on their ‘promoted’ articles.

 

III.

 

To the non-human text is attached the equally lifeless information vessel: the form of the listicle is a form asphyxiating critical thought. The domain of the list is, after all, the domain of mundane factuality, and the listicle rattles of its various points with all the thoughtless surety of a shop inventory or a table of contents. The brilliance of the listicle is that even when it smuggles literary or journalistic content into the form, we still approach it as a ‘list’ with all the various cognitive mechanisms we’ve been trained to bear upon them. To read a listicle is not to interrogate the text as one would an essay or article, but to merely accept what is given as facts in need of no investigation. As such, the listicle doesn’t even presume to inconvenience us with the production of our own reactions: each point comes with a designated reaction gif—any active part in the practice of ‘reading’ demanded of us by more outmoded literary forms now comes packaged in an all-in-one-deal. As when Brecht sarcastically suggested the government simply “dissolve the people and elect another,” the reaction gif makes quite passe the old cliche that one must ‘write for their audience’: the listicle’s audience is already contained within the text, with all their pre-established responses in perfect harmony with the author’s designs.

 

IV.

 

The appeal of the Buzzfeed quiz expresses a generalized desire to become a reaction gif oneself.

 

V.

 

As pure ideology the listicle takes on the form of pure theoretical practice. As Althusser’s generalities worked upon each other to produce concrete knowledge, with human agents figuring as but epiphenomena, in proper algebraic form the listicle cancels out the human factor on either side of the author-reader equation. Even their mode of proliferation now seems to be striving to live up to the whole venture’s fervent commitment to theoretical anti-humanism: whereas ‘people’—or even, shudder, ‘friends’—used to have to post them on social media, they now appear on your newsfeed of their own accord, as just one more facet of our wonderful consumer-oriented web2.0 experience.

 

VI.

 

In dedication to interdisciplinary studies, the listicle far surpasses the most subversive critical theorists and avant-garde writers in the business right now — could Reza Negarestani even have thought to write panegyrics to Israel and “23 Reasons why Moms are the Best” in the same exact format. The brilliance of the form’s apparent indifference to content is that one begins to approach even listicles presenting the most obviously political content with the same degree of criticality one brings to bear upon a list of animals doing cute things.

 

VII.

 

Thus is the insidiousness of the ostensibly tongue-in-cheek titles one constantly sees in the vein of “21 Pictures That Prove That Moms Know Everything” : while on one level– and on a level no one can directly criticize without seeming absurd– proof is merely used in a hyperbolic manner for the sake of a joke, in the broader social context in which listicles figure, the medium’s implicit standard of proof is dissolved into so many cute exaggerations.

 

IIX.

 

The proliferation of the listicle is not merely an insulated incident of poor aesthetic sensibilities or sub-par journalism, but perhaps the penultimate expression of a general cultural gravitation towards both what is prepackaged and that which makes pretensions to objectivity. It should surprise no one that the world of the listicle’s dominance is also the world of steeply declining rates of readership in the west, particularly in the case of fiction; all of this is to say, it is a world in which we are encouraged to engage, not in the ruthless criticism of everything in existence, but the tireless acceptance of whatever we are told. When Buzzfeed releases pieces like “14 Moments from RT’s Coverage of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine” — with, of course, the very telling reassurance “We watched so you didn’t have to”– the point is not to encourage greater scrutiny media in general, but quite the opposite: to implicitly remind us just how objective and correct western media is compared to the agitprop swilled by those inscrutable eastern masses. The irony in that the whole article uncritically takes as its starting point highly contentious western framing of the issue, or the fact that it fails to address any of the ‘insane’ moments from western coverage– which any even-handed analysis would find in equal if not far more substantial amounts than in RT’s– was apparently beyond the authors’s grasp.

 

IX.

 

As the attendant literary form of the global counterrevolution now reigning supreme under the banner of Thatcher’s famous claim that there is “no such thing as society,” there are now offered to we totally atomized neoliberal subjects not essays or even articles in which each discrete element is understood as one part of a totality, but equally isolated textual atoms merely arranged into a ‘list.’

 

X.

 

Such a form militates against narratives or schemas, it denies the fact that everything we understand is only made comprehensible in terms of the particular framework we as readers bring to bear upon it, and that the author only composed the listicle as a coherent text by engaging not with a world of isolated facts but a totality. Like Lukacs’s “blinkered empiricist,” the listicle author “will of course deny that facts can only become facts within the framework of a system – which will vary with the knowledge desired. He believes that every piece of data from economic life, every statistic, every raw event already constitutes an important fact. In so doing he forgets that however simple an enumeration of ‘facts’ may be, however lacking in commentary, it already implies an ‘interpretation’. Already at this stage the facts have been comprehended by a theory, a method; they have been wrenched from their living context and fitted into a theory.”As literary-Thatcherism, the listicle declares “there is no system,” its neatly organized points granting us nothing but “clear”, unmediated truths.

 

XI.

 

If the philosophers only interpreted the world, in various ways, the listicle suggests we refrain from even this.