Saturday, September 17, 2016


Marx famously wrote, “A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood.  Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (Das Kapital I, 1).  And there is no stranger commodity in the history of capitalism than that which drives the economy of the Information Age—Opinion.  Opinions function mysteriously because they have no intrinsic exchange or use value.  You cannot fix a price on an opinion, and yet whole industries profit through their exchange: the press, social media, pollsters, webzines, television.  Even the Use Value of an opinion is disputable, which may seem counterintuitive, given that opinions are believed to be a guarantor of Democracy—the Voice of the People; the free exchange of ideas is practically sacrosanct, underwritten by the First Amendment.  And yet, traditionally, opinion has never been highly regarded.  

Plato derided opinion as mere doxa, unexamined collective beliefs, which Socratic inquiry serves to dispel.  Hippocrates distinguished between science, which begets knowledge, and opinion, which begets ignorance.  Ben Jonson wrote that “Opinion is a light, vain, crude, and imperfect thing.”  And JFK pops up on Facebook in memes bearing this nugget: “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”  Opinion in this guise is merely prejudice; but it wears others.  In bourgeois society, opinion became the arbiter of social class and conduct.  Machado de Assis characterized it as “esse olhar agudo e judicial”—that sharp judgmental stare—and an effective solder (“boa solda”) for society.  And with the rise of mass media, it became a means to shape consensus and manipulate the masses, as Walter Benjamin noted: “It is precisely the purpose of public opinion generated by the press to make the public incapable of judging, to insinuate into it the attitude of someone irresponsible, uninformed.”

Defenders of opinion like to make a distinction between knee-jerk and informed opinion; but the distinction is moot: and not just because an informed opinion is something more than mere opinion, and thus deserves a separate category; the distinction is moot because it fails to take into consideration the means whereby opinions are generated and disseminated.  In the Information Age, Opinion’s Medium is the Message.  Opinion is not simply a message; it is an environment.  And the purpose of this environment is only ostensibly the free exchange of ideas.  Its fundamental purpose, the reason for the existence of the media that govern its exchange, is its function as markers of trends, tastes, biases; in short, opinions function as statistics, which are plotted in order to serve markets—or state security apparatuses.  Thus, opinion is a signifier whose connection to meaning and value exists as a kind of displacement; like any metaphor, its meaning is manifold, and the tenor is to be found not in the immediate thought being expressed, but in its oblique reference to a feature, a trace, a clue that forms part of a consumer (or suspect) profile.

For the capitalist, silence is not golden.  CBS’s president, Les Moonves, made that quite clear when he told all of us that constant commentary on Trump “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS . . . The money’s rolling in and this is fun.”  Your comment is his profit.  So, instead of feeding the media machine, should we all keep silent?  What about the way in which opinion can mobilize people and bring about change?  These days social movements seem to spring out of a meme, like Athena from the head of Zeus.  Sometimes Opinion shapes history even more than policy.  Surely the real value of opinion inheres in its power to move mountains?  Those who have such faith are henceforth obliged to live with a contradiction; for the capitalist, there is no contradiction.  Because its function as a mode of free speech does not necessarily subvert the commodification of opinion; on the contrary, that function guarantees its commodification: In the Information Age, free speech is the ideal commodity, because it is infinitely renewable and minimally regulated.  Yet another theological nicety that beats easy understanding . . .

Friday, June 3, 2016

The First Stone . . .

Lately my newsfeed has been full of threads expressing outrage over the unfortunate death of Harambe, with everyone howling for the blood of the mother whose child slipped into the enclosure.  Without knowing the full circumstances, the virtual mob has set itself up as judge and executioner while consoling itself with its display of moral superiority and outrage.  My newsfeed is a hail of stones with no Jesus to intercede.  And the death of the gorilla is only the most recent instance of social media’s lust for vengeance.  The primaries have been one long stream of stones being hurled from Left and Right, because social media encourages the expression of self righteous outrage rather than ideas; and the prevalence of ad hominem arguments, the preference for invective, the laziness of brief retorts, the circulation of misinformation, and the constant resort to angry resentment have eclipsed civil discourse and rational analysis to the point where fewer and fewer people are capable of exercising it.  Critical thinking requires practice, and the necessary skills will disappear along with the civil attitudes if we continue to indulge these bad habits—habits, by the way, that profit the demagogues, the Super PAC funders, the NRA, ALEC, the social media moguls, and the press.  Politics is a rough and tumble business, and a bit of piss and vinegar is often a bracing element of any good debate, but when all you have to offer is vitriol, the debate serves no purpose other than to give you some cheap personal catharsis and provide massive profits for those who run the media.  As the president of CBS observed, “it may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS, . . . The money’s rolling in, this is fun.”  Let’s face it, we are being played by these ringmasters of orchestrated resentment, just like the Roman plebs filling the Coliseum.  What’s worse, it’s all circus and precious little bread.

So many people disparage Trump for his schoolyard tactics, but so many critics of such behavior behave just like him.  Yesterday, on a thread I posted dealing with a typical webzine article—long on rhetoric, short on substance—about the schism in the Democratic Party, an outraged Clinton supporter referred to Cornel West as “Brother house nigger West.”  Pretty illiberal language for a person whose biography page leads with this self-definition: “Liberal.”  West himself has gone in for plenty of invective and ad hominem attacks, and it’s a damn shame; but that doesn’t mean anyone should follow suit and call him a nigger.  No one in this media circus is free of blame, whether the stone is thrown from the Right or the Left.  The obvious misogyny behind much of the criticism of Clinton from both Parties is reprehensible; if you don’t like the candidates there are plenty of substantive points on which you can task them—and that goes for all the candidates, Sanders included.  (After all, these people are politicians, not saviors, so let’s not idolize them either.)  The illiberality and incivility that rule social media discourse are turning all of us into petty, querulous Trumps, utterly convinced of our own moral rectitude and disdainful of substantive discussion.  Everyone is anxious to throw the first stone at whatever new offender appears on the horizon of the newsfeed, regardless of whether we actually know anything about the matter.  And nowadays there is no end of stones.

Criticism in a democracy is necessary but, like any weapon, it needs some control.  There’s a big difference between legitimate criticism and puerile, Trump-style condemnation.  If you are disinclined to be tolerant, then think of it as a question of self-preservation.  If no one among us is without sin, then no one is safe from the stones, and heaven help you if the collective wrath of the virtual mob turns on you.  But even if your immediate well being is not threatened, your social well being is inevitably degraded when our discourse is dominated by the groaning and shrieking of trolls.  Who wants to live in an uncivil society?