Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The end of consensus reality

Jodi Dean is a professor of political science -- does anyone really believe that there can be a "science" of politics? -- with the leftist world view appropriate to her position. As much as I dislike the academic humbug of "poststructuralism and psychoanalysis," "feminist theory," etc., she does offer a provocative theory in her 1998 book Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace, in which she interprets the phenomena of UFOs in psychological and political terms:
... The increasing complexity of an age brought about by networked computers, on the one hand, and the inscription of American politics within a televisual public sphere, on the other, have created a situation where political choices and decisions are virtually meaningless, practically impossible. 

Faced with gigabytes of indigestible information, computer-generated special effects, competing expert testimonies, and the undeniable presence of power, corruption, racism, and violence throughout science and law, voters, consumers, viewers, and witnesses have no criteria for choosing among policies and verdicts, treatments and claims. Even further, we have no recourse to procedures, be they scientific or juridical, that might provide some "supposition of reasonableness."

... What is at stake is the question of truth. No expert analysis can decide the matter, can convince a "public" of its rightness. Globalization and the Internet destroy the illusion of the public by creating innumerable networks of connection and information. By their introduction of disagreement, confrontation, and critique, they have always already displaced any possibility of agreement.
A glance at the utterly conflicting positions in issues such as the Tea Party and Occupy movements, immigration, or the European Union seems to bear out her basic theory. The contending factions act as though they are living in different realities, which in a sense they are. Anyone can find almost limitless sources of information or argument to support whatever position they favor. Google "mass immigration good" and you get 4,100,000 results; "mass immigration bad" brings up 2,900,000 results.

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In a world swept by data storms that leave their deposits in cyberspace; where volcanic memes erupt and spread from country to country in a matter of hours; the scientific, philosophical, historic, and political records become all things to all people. Facts and theories are debased coinage, increasingly meaningless because we are all consciously or unconsciously aware that each has its opposite-charge mirror image in the electronic continuum.

This is one reason why social issues stay permanently deadlocked, the Palestinians and the Israelis can't sit down and talk over their competing claims, political parties can't split the difference. The sides are not just arguing from different premises, as Sydney Smith wisecracked about neighbors across the street from each other. The premises are on different planets.

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The impossibility of reaching consensus has a positive side. With every shade of opinion about anything only keystrokes away, it becomes impossible for mass media -- including propaganda organizations like the New York Times or PBS -- to define reality for practically everyone, as they used to. They still believe in their old entitlement, but when they try to grasp it, it slips out of their hands like soap in the shower. These whales, formerly dominating a small tank, now must share an ocean with countless other creatures.

Their frustrating inability to channel the discourse makes the Leftist Establishment angry and shrill, more determined than ever to set limits on speech and acceptable belief. So far, the Left has mainly ruled through government bribery of various groups -- minorities and unions, for example. It has a totalitarian impulse, but one that for the moment remains "soft" totalitarianism, excommunicating from polite society "racists" and "far rightists." But the Left still feels the threat and, if the experience of (for instance) Britain and the Netherlands is anything to go by, the attempted clampdown will become less and less "soft."

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Social Marxism and economic redistributionism are in the driver's seat, but of course other groups like religious fundamentalists and marketers inhabit their own realities as well.

The only alternative I can see to central states imposing their particular reality through various degrees of censorship and coercion is devolution of society into smaller units where some agreement is possible. That's why we need a constitutional amendment setting out legal and peaceful means for states or other jurisdictions to secede. It seems to me almost inevitable that some will, and we have the choice to allow it to happen through agreed rules or risk another conflict like that of 1861-1865 and the occupation that followed -- an attempt to enforce a consensus reality that didn't exist.

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1 comment:

David said...

"Faced with gigabytes of indigestible information, computer-generated special effects, competing expert testimonies"...this sounds a lot like a cleric cira 1500 who is very worried about the confusion that will be caused by a new technology called printing, which could allow the common sort to access conflicting sources of information directly, without the immediate guiding presence of their priests.