Sunday, January 16, 2011

Mulling Sam Rocha's "spectacle"

I'm not sure why Andrew Sullivan calls his blog The Daily Dish -- "dish" makes me think of the unsavory Lucianne Goldberg, who when she helped retail Linda Tripp and her salacious wiretap to the world, explained, "I love dish, I live for dish."  But it might be because he serves up a cornucopia of nourishing minds whom one might never otherwise encounter.  Today, for example, he introduced me (via Dish, that is) to a certain assistant professor of philosophy in a snippet I found arresting -- below, reproduced as introduced:
Sam Rocha wonders whether politics, and the occasional spectacle it creates, "is a palliative cure for boredom":
I suspect the reason people read these things—including the commentary here at [Vox-Nova]—is because they are bored. Now, you may object saying that you choose to read or write here for principled reasons. You may in fact have a busy life, full of things to do, and come here for reasons that seem unrelated to boredom.

But, I ask (myself first and foremost): What is boredom but loneliness, alienation, lovelessness, and the desire for something to occupy the time in a way that puts those stark realities at a distance? What is boredom but not quite feeling at home in the place you are? ...

I fear to say it and I have little idea of what to do about it but, at least for the moment, I must admit that the more I am here, writing about the “News”—albeit in sly, “intellectual” ways—the less I am elsewhere: with my family, my students, myself, a stranger, with God. And that “elsewhere” is much more important. But, despite its obvious import, value, and beauty: it is boring, ordinary, and real.
So I seek the idol, the spectacle instead. And the real, iconic God feels absent.
The "spectacle" which Rocha defines in a prior post is "news", of which politics is a subset, and the representation of the Tucson shootings, the latest instance.  Here is part of his reflection on the way we have processed that event:
...what is “News” is sold as spectacular novelty. But those who know of its real origins know that the “News” is not new at all. The “News” is not new, it is complexly distorted into a spectacular thing. It is a thing raped of its reality and replaced with added spectacles of meaning.

As many nice lies that might be said — lies of sympathy and remorse — we all know the basic truth: we love the spectacle. We love these events. We may say that we hate them, but we hate them amorously. We love to hate them. The media loves to feed this to the masses and get rich. And those for whom this fantasy has replaced reality: they will kill anyone who threatens to subvert the spectacle with reality.

What is wrong with this event is that we only believe we can see it — and by thinking we see it, fail to see anything at all — as theater, under the specter of the nation-state: the spectacle of politics.

Regarding politics: political spectacle is status quo. It is the norm, not the exception. Political success is literally tied to being made into a spectacle on television and the rest.

These charges of bad faith -- in the media, in politicians, in all of us as consumers and particpantas and producers of spectacle -- hit home to me.  Below, a comment I posted on Vox Nova ("Catholic perspectives on culture,society and politics"), where Rocha blogs:
As someone who’s become addicted to online news, analysis, opinion, bloviation, I feel the force of this critique. I am reminded of Samuel Johnson’s contention that people don’t care about politics – they think they do, but they don’t; when leadership changes hands they go about their business unaffected. I have liked to think that perhaps this is less true in a democracy, but it’s certainly true to a degree. And I have always associated the claim with a private analogy about sports: we follow our party as a team, we get engaged in the same way. The difference of course is that we can “play” in our politics to whatever degree inclination and capacity allow — but back to your point, for introverts in particular, is reading/writing online a substitute for real engagement with real people?

Perhaps, to a degree. On the other hand, you can say that about any scholarly engagement or any engagement based mainly on solo experience. If you’re in any endless dialogue with various dead and living theologians, is that any less a displacement? Is the distinction mainly between hobby and work? If I were to spend my spare time reading about the Civil War, and perhaps engaging with other ‘buffs,’ and maybe participating in reenactments, would I be less lost in spectacle, substitutes for reality?

Regarding the prior post, and our processing news as “spectacle,” I feel the force of that too — primarily in displacement of the horror of the event with a kind of delight in the President’s performance in its wake, on the heels of a week of fearsome ideological combat — which, you could say, the President pierced in terms similar to your critique here, calling on each of us to respond personally to the event as we would to a personal loss. And that brings me to the other side of my reaction: I believe that in some ways I was imaginatively immersed in something like the event itself — trying to imagine being there, but chiefly in feeling the kind of terror that any parent might feel that one’s child might go off the rails like Jared Loughner — that any parent could be the Loughners. I imagine that many in the country did have some kind of similar imaginative engagement, whether with the parents of the child killed, or the Loughners, or whomever. Also, to circle back to the President’s speech, I think it did occasion some kind of communitas, and there’s a real value in that too.

Some further thoughts, reading this cold: perhaps I reacted too personally to Rocha's notion of spectacle, focusing on my reaction to the "news" rather than on the process of its manufacture (to which I in a tiny way contributed with various blog posts).  Regarding that manufacture, though, I think that it's possible to be too fastidious.  Our national processing of the event has been composed of myriad parts -- some sensationalist, some concerned mainly with political advantage, but many, too, that were good-faith efforts to prevent and analyze; in fact most representations, like most human work in general, were probably a mixed bag of good faith and personal agenda/professional imperative.

One complicating factor in this real-time age of ours: we had some access to unmediated elements of the story, e.g., Jared Loughner's YouTube productions -- his own spectacles that were paradoxically part of the bone and sinew of the "real" story.  And I do feel some satisfaction in having been able myself on the day of the event to take an unmediated look at at those productions without politically-tinged prejudice. If engaging in that effort was a displacement of the sheer horror we should have all felt in imagining the suffering caused by the shooting, the same might be said for most human labors.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Andrew,

    I thank you (and Andrew Sullivan) for your kind attention to my writing. There are several things I might offer other than gratitude; one of them is that I do not intend to make charges of "bad faith" in my essays. I know that the term 'lies' does seem to connote that implication, but I am really referring to the hidden, involuntary aspects that create the conditions for the spectacle---regardless of our will or intentions.

    I don't think that you reacted too personally, though. After all, I wrote in a personal tone and as a reflexive exercise. I think you have done me a great favor in showing how another person can engage in self-reflexive writing and meditation that takes the spectacle seriously without abandoning all hope to it.

    Thanks again,

    Sam

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