Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Friday, January 07, 2011

"The Future" as Ad and as Cult

You will not go far wrong simply to treat pop futurology as a fandom of dupes doing unpaid crowdsourced marketing and promotional work for violent incumbent corporate-militarist interests.

The hyperbolic, bordering on fraudulent, claims of mainstream advertising for ineffectual pills and ointments, the trumpeting as "revolutionary" of incremental adjustments and repackagings of features already available in consumer goods, but especially cars, computers, and media devices, the evocations of "science" with phony experts in labcoats mouthing pseudo-scientific neologisms, the computer generated animations connecting imaginary science fiction "sensawunda" futurity to the stasis of quotidian neo-feudalism (space battles in Air Force ads, crystal pastel art deco cityscapes in ads for sunglasses, immersive virtual reality in ads for chewing gum, radical cyborgization in ads for cellphones and so on): all of these conventions are shared across the landscape of mainstream advertising and in futurology.

Those few public pseudo-intellectuals among the futurologists who pose as serious experts, policymakers, and scientists, the ones who find it so easy to describe their vapid enthusiasms and neologisms as a practice of "philosophy" unmoored from any actual philosophical reading or tradition, are certainly incompetents and fools. But most of them are not so much indulging in conscious scams (although futurology has its share of ridiculous would-be gurus who are hard to distinguish from those fundamentalist frauds who fleece parishioners with fierce promises of transcendence and revenge) as they are simply not very bright, rather uncritical participants and therefore symptom of the suffusion of public discourse by marketing and promotional norms more generally.

We are saturated in deception, spin, hyperbole for parochial short-term inconstant gains and we come to find our expectations, our assumptions, our aspirations, our very souls are being reshaped in the image of the parochial promotional: the desperate marketing impulse that pads our resumes to get that job interview, whatever our qualifications, and connect us somehow to some useful role in the society from which we feel unmoored, the sad self-promotional effort that exaggerates, fictionalizes, and normalizes our personal profiles and photoshops our images to get that first date, whereupon we dream some magic of encounter will deliver us from spiritual homelessness, the pathetic public relations ethos that drives us to express ourselves in blog posts that yield zero comments, that pretend word clouds mechanistically weighting the frequency of word choices discerns some unique meaning from utterly undistinguished utterances, that fancies the number of fleeting page views drawn in by who knows what word search strings renders us public intellectuals of a sort, all the while only the silent raptor-eyed panoptic surveyors and monitors of the security state and the compilers of profiles for even more incessant and intensively targeted advertising harassment show much more than utter indifference to our "participation" in the remnant freedom of open networks...

We fancy we are agents marketing ourselves for advantage in a networked attentional economy, promoting what is remarkable in us when instead we go unremarked but marked for marketing, constituted in our selves as market-ready, readily marketed, on the make not self-making but on the market.

There have always been ideologues and charlatans and fraudsters populating the scene of our public life, there has always been deception and corruption and scandal, oligarchy and violence and exploitation are nothing new. But we have been sold: the corrosive and deepening derangement of public discourse by the norms and forms of promotional discourse demands our urgent and immediate address, its forms facilitate in their utter prevalence the displacement by parochial profit-taking and imperial moralizing of the contingent universalization in which public scientific, ethical, and political legitimacies are lodged, its suffusion of our public life and our public selfhood provides an indispensable but neglected context (no doubt among others) with which to understand the special vulnerability to and force of eliminationism, hyperbole, deception in our debased contemporary politics.

To understand this catastrophic suffusion of public life with the norms of the promotional (you need only ponder the distinction of politics from public relations to grasp the full force of such a shift), it is especially crucial to remember that contemporary capitalist formations are post-Fordist, and that neoliberal/neoconservative, that is to say corporate-militarist, capitalism depends on a relentless kind of hyper-speculation that disavows its materiality (financialization, informationalization/informalization, digitization, logo-ization) as well as a global developmentalism that disavows its violence (the military might that enables exploitation of the global/informal Precariat, as well as the violation of ecosystems that enables ongoing extractive industrialization in the face of ruin).

The ongoing devastation of academic and evidence-based institutions through the emergence of the anti-academic think-tank archipelago and the corporatization of the University and the hegemony of corporate-militarist mass media, should be regarded as both a casualty of this shift into a promotional public, as well as facilitating, accelerating, and amplifying its terms. This is the indispensable context for understanding the thriving of climate change denialism and macroeconomic illiteracy (among many other comparable irrationalisms and moralisms) vying in contemporary public discourse for the patina of institutional legitimacy.

The scientific and the ethical as modes of warranted belief-ascription, that is to say as forms of truth-talk, are organized by imperatives of contingent universalization out of which arise their falsifiable claims to legitimacy, while the truths of profitability (every profit complemented by a loss) and mores (every "we" constituted through the exclusion of a "they") are inherently parochial.

This is not to say the moral and the profitable are illegitimate or dispensable as modalities of belief ascription in their parochialism, but to insist that they are what they are and do the work that they do, and to warn against confusions and problems that arise from ignorant or mistaken efforts to substitute the moral for the ethical (which yields moralizing and genocide) or the profitable for the scientific (which yields propaganda and oligarchy) when what is wanted are the sorts of legitimacy only afforded by the latter terms. (If this strain of argument is congenial but unfamiliar to you, by the way, you might enjoy other efforts I've archived at the sidebar under the heading Posts on Pluralism and Pragmatism.)

I mention these apparently tangential issues in order to circle around to another point, by way of conclusion. I've devoted enormous amounts of space to the critique of futurology, but hitherto that critique has emphasized the ways in which what I call superlative (or transcendental) futurology embedded within sub(cult)ural futurological formations (the whole Robot Cult archipelago of organizations and would-be "movements" and identity politics/fandoms I have ridiculed so relentlessly for so many years now) should be regarded as a kind of organized but marginal and defensive religiosity for which the familiar critiques of cult formations and True Believers and fundamentalist politics all come very much in handy. (For these critiques of mine, The Condensed Critique of Transhumanism hands it to you in a nutshell, while The Superlative Summary offers endless variations and applications on these themes, and my Futurological Brickbats provide an aphoristic alternate survey of the highlights.)

Although I try to take pains to emphasize that the rather outrageous and extreme forms taken by superlative and sub(cult)ural futurology are most useful when taken as clarifying crystallizations of more prevailing mainstream discourses -- and I would insist that futurology is the quintessential justificatory and aspirational vocabulary of neoliberal capitalism (still more on this here) -- I can see why long-time readers might still wonder whether the critique of futurology as a symptom of the contemporary suffusion of the public sphere with the norms of marketing and promotional discourse represents an important shift away from my earlier critique of futurology as a kind of organized religiosity engaged in pseudo-science and fundamentalist politics.

What I would say in conclusion is that for me these two critiques are very much of a piece, that part of what is wrong with the suffusion of the public sphere with promotional norms is that it amounts to a resurgence of priestly-aristocratic parochialism and incumbent-elitism, an eclipse of the collective work of contingent universalization, peer to peer, that yield the legitimacy, authority, and currency of the scientific and the ethical, proper, with which the most congenial strands of Enlightenment seem to me most concerned, and without which the ongoing work of attaining to secular sustainable consensual convivial social democracy seems to me both unworkable and even unthinkable.

Although I am someone whose political economy is indebted to Keynes most of all and whose political theory is indebted to Arendt most of all (both of whom were decidedly post-Marxist even in those areas in which they were not outright anti-Marxist), it seems to me that one still has to turn to the late Marx and his cultural critique of the ubiquitous fetishized commodity-form to grasp just how futurology's promotional normativity connects to futurology's transcendental cultism: the story, which is a long one I balk at elaborating at length and so leave to another day, is one that features among its key episodes Adorno's Culture Industry, Barthes's Mythology, Debord's Spectacle, and Naomi Klein's Logo (all of whom foreground in turn mass mediation to supplement failed Marxian historiography and to correct Marxian reductionism all the while sounding the key Marxian theme that culture is the repository of enslaving irrationality).

It's a story any one of the students in any number of the courses I have taught in critical theory over the last decade could recite with their eyes closed, and it's rather nice to find such a conspicuous convergence between the preoccupations of my blogging and the focus of my teaching opening up.

More to come.

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