Intellectual Nihilism In The 21st Century
MIT's Ted Selker recently commented on the BBC, "If we spend our time flitting from one thing to another on the web, we can get into a habit of not concentrating..."
Considering the fact that today web surfing is the equivalent of television channel surfing, ubiquitous, the comment brought to mind a long-time friend of mine who is a columnist for New York Press. Last year this friend wrote an article entitled "God Bless Our Attack Dog," referring to the efforts of former NYC Mayor Giuliani regarding New York's terrorist event. Having heard my friend lay democrat-tinged critique at the feet of Giuliani with abandon on many other occasions, I was rather shocked. Of course I appreciated the Mayor's efforts, but I also had not somehow contracted amnesia and forgotten Giuliani's rather convenient grasp of The American Constitution. A potent example found in the former public servant's (never call him that to his face) recent information coup in which he successfully sequestered, J. Edgar Hoover style, "public records" detailing his mayoral exploits into the private hands of one of his many Go Rudy orgs. I responded to my friend's article with one of my own entitled "Patriot Games," published on the MARS Magazine website, in which I pointed out to my friend and others the Reality Distortion Field deployed by the formidable politician. I never heard from my friend again. No refutation. No discourse. Nothing. The tacit message, a deafening and resonating silence, echoing through the mouths of radio, print, television and internet journalists across the U.S. Tow the line, or be knocked off-line.
This anecdote typifies the faint whiff of something I had become aware some time ago, but only now can assert as tangible and widespread American phenomenon. The practice of intellectual nihilism. Somehow, a historically thoughtful person had allowed zeitgeist politics to inject him with the populist theme of selective discernment and a seeming aversion to intellectual rigor. The Reality Distortion Field. Indeed, it seems Baudrillard's simulacra wonderland has come to full fruition as all the signs and symbols of primordial man are now reduced to Brand(tm), and social discourse lives only as a Global eBay of ready made avatar ideas exchanged for the currency of dadaist shrugs of "whatever." Of course, the precursor to this currency is obviously the similarly named pseudo intellectualism. Allowed to flourish, attain maturity on the American landscape, and finally become canonized, the once seemingly benign pseudo intellectualism has morphed into the malignant activity of intellectual nihilism. A complete absence of Joseph Campbell's "bliss station." Recently hearing about the death of irony was a sociological Mobius strip statement unmatched in its broad implications. It said nothing, and revealed all.
A postmodern age of expression that began with the mutations of Warhol showing us Ourselves as the unrepentant voyeurs that we are, thus catalyzing violent discourse on the nature of pop culture, has now degenerated into a blanket denial of the relevancy and authenticity of anything. Show up at an elite loft party attempting to raise the idea that, in the main, only the emaciated form of the wholly recombinant is afoot, a Faith Popcorn clone disguised in baggy pants, vintage sneakers and an Atari t-shirt may spring forth from behind the DJ booth, interrupting his set to admonish you in French, all the while quoting statistics, dead poets, and "what The New York Times said." What The New York Times said is what Popcorn said, and round and round. One of my first experiences with sampling, aside from music, came in the form of Ishmael Reed's novel Mumbo Jumbo whose clipped ciphers and scatological allegories breathed depth and salience into what from afar looked to be white noise. Rarely have I experienced such informed non-musical sampling. Somewhat removed from the miasma of popular culture, renowned sample pioneer and composer Karlheinz Stockhausen dared Think Different(tm) and imagined the NYC tower smashings as Art. After being literally run out of town, the cowed composer timidly inched back onto the scene a week later and repented, thus fading dutifully into the dull fabric of contrite consensus. The musician's most famous composition will be forever after known as his decision to shut up. Irony indeed.
It turns out that the Sample in fact is the metaphorical vector of consilience that we sought, and having grasped its mechanics, Rome has wielded it in such a manner as to undo all notions of inspired heavy-lifting. As ancient eschatology sampled Third Act expositions giving birth to world theologies with more in common than not, modern samples conjoin to codify a belief set of the moment easily rearranged into a new Lego patchwork of popular rhetorical constructs. In fact, in order to speak to this new component language it becomes more context appropriate to refer to its parts in appropriate pop lingo-memes. The shepherding of memes in media affords a select few to ultimately program the populace i.e. the consumer. What drives the program is not some dark conspiracy. No, the meme is capital infused, and proud of it.
When West Wing producer Aaron Sorkin recently expressed the sentiments of nearly half of the American's who voted in the last Presidential election, an unpopular anti-Bush meme, his NBC employers distanced themselves from the overly frank producer, and it seemed as though any other mainstream media voice was afraid to lodge any but the most glancing defense of Sorkin's position--that George Bush is a living tableau of satire of the highest order. What is even more interesting is that many of the Bush dissenters fail to acknowledge that at this point, the Amerachine needs only an avatar and nothing more to effective churn out a proper McWorld and all the condiments--militaristic, financial, technocratic--that come with it. Bush goes down just fine...he is, consumable.
The DJ knows this. Of all in our American culture, the DJ has become the exalted shaman. No, not the scratching, cutting DJ who actually attempts some next-iteration music. This DJ has no knowing smirk, and is too authentic. This DJ actually has the nerve to take what he/she is doing seriously. No, the DJ who commands today's attention is that of the DJ as social commentator/climber. The exclusive DJ who only spins his choice memes at only the most select venues and private parties. After a set, the DJ shaman is sought out in some smoky corner of the room for his knowledge as ultimate arbiter of samples. "Yes, this is the one who can put it all together to make sense." But the language of this DJ is addled by his reliance on media programming and derivative contact with the authentic. This DJ is a ghost inhabiting the shell of authenticity. As with the giants of bebop Jazz past, usually the musicians with the most relevant social commentary use the aural idiom as their rostrum. The DJ shaman has only the logo mine field of America to play with, a landscape free of dynamics or long-term relevance. Think: the musician as commercial producer. 30 seconds of bliss. No memory. But you want more. Whereas The Bomb Squad used sound collage to serve African-American dissent, the DJ as meme shaman serves only the muse of the zeitgeist, untethered by the responsibility of actually holding to any one passionate position--cultural, political or otherwise. He can say anything, as long as it's on the meme Top 10 this month, and be conferred with the continuing mandate of the programmed who have deliciously gotten just what they expected: A really cool commercial.
You know how when a music artist's project material isn't that strong and the record label embarks on a campaign of collaboration deals with other well-known artists so the final product turns out to be less an expression of the artist's original work, and more a patch work of different established artist's one-offs? The DJ shaman has turned this into an entropic dialectic of Authenticity By Association. This DJ rides the themes of recent cultural iconography (Yoko Ono, Phillip Glass, any French artist, etc.) in an act of atavistic vampirism, thus prolonging for yet another day his living dead jig so the wealth of his internal catalog of ephemera can be again put on display to impress all with his "taste." While Japan's sampladelic city of mirrors has spawned an Eiko Ishioka who is able to grind conflicting motifs into design gesticulations that act as WiFi sign language for our greatgrandchildren, the DJ shaman powers up his iBook and transmogrifies before our very eyes into the ineffectual laptop key-jay.
But why "intellectual nihilism"?
Because, by and large, entering the Reality Distortion Field, submitting yourself to the meme machine is--a choice. Or, in memetic terms, "Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out." The labeling of the generations (X, Y, etc.) has intensified the dictum of "trust no one over 30." Today the ultimate cool is the denial and refutation of all authority and authenticity as a means to a new virtual authenticity. You can be a teenager forever. Giving full life to this youth-anchored dream of intellectual nihilism is the new show from cable channel HBO called "Candidate 2012." The show promises to make an anonymous person, who must be between the ages of 24 and 29, a legitimate candidate for the President of the United States in the year 2012. The joke that "if Bush Jr. can become President, anyone can" is being taken seriously by a corporate machine that knows what the public wants and intends to deliver us our first "Real World" MTV rock star President. Expect a DJ to make it to the final selection round.
Fundraiser Event DJ Oligarch Spins At Nobu INVITATION ONLY "Come out and support DJ Oligarch, and support Democracy!" Special invited guests: Madonna, Chelsea Clinton, Carson Daly, Henry Kissinger, Bono, George Soros, Destiny's Child, NSync, & Michael Powell [*This is a T.Brown & K.Andersen LLC Production--Sponsored By AOL TimeWarner]
As the decades have passed, the photonic strobe of product iconography has hypnotized America into a FAQ shorthand version of Ayn Rand's "Virtue of Selfishness." Once primarily the domain of teens, the blanket refutation of All now drives America's youth-obsessed society struggling to hang onto fading adolescence as we find adults far into their fifties denying their instinct and following the meme trail to claim that they somehow love Britney Spears "in a weird sort of way." You've probably heard this one at least once over the past couple of years: "Ya know, I like Britney Spears! I know...I'm weird. Don't tell anyone!" This person wants you to tell Everyone. In fact, this person is neither weird nor exhibiting some unique persisting youth taste in the face of age. No, this person is illustrating an exercise in accepting pop programming. Swallowing whole the Pill, the elixir of youth in theory, hoping that Transhumanist technology will one day catch up with us to make us forever young and brash before our slang battery wears out. The Blue Pill tastes great, and it's less filling. It's Nietzsche's long-awaited capsule that will turn an underdog, buried under the weight of the mundane, into an ubermensch, able to leap tall intellectual and social paradoxes in a single, carefree bound. But, "No one ever makes it on the first jump. Right...?"
At once the nadir and the apex, the genius labor of epitomizing America's current cultural paradox successfully falls to a cartoon, "The Simpsons." An "Odyssey of Homeric proportions" no longer refers exclusively to the archaic Greek text. Meta irony is needed, and now the chief architects of truth tend to be cartoonists building air castles upon each other in succeeding tiers of precarious culture schlock. So derided for their "juvenile" scribblings, these 2D magi are left alone with enough space to promulgate original whilst nestled in the eye of the storm. Chuck Jones will be missed. Ward Sutton is appreciated. Finally, the curator as artiste, aesthete as auteur.
The graphic user interface of memes allows the social construct (the OS?) proffered to us to deftly and stealthily guide us into programmed behaviors and modalities of thought. The programmer has disdain, and no mercy, for the programmed. For most, GUI use is inevitable and authentic. But when Warhol used memetic GUI's to introduce new levels of aesthetic discourse, he laid out in a plain autodidactic path for the non-programmer. It may be years before America truly understands that he wasn't just offering a short cut.
Sadly, the DJ sham-man is often conversant in the practice of short-cut-as-pseudoWarholism. And, rather than do the work, often he simply wears the garb and parrots the stylistic and expository gestures of the late mixer in order to hack his way into the simulacra forest and offer his own totem of virtual authenticity which is twice removed from any such thing.
If Nietzsche acts as a posthumous prophet for postmodernism, perhaps then the DJ shaman, with his amorphous fugues of surreality pieces, is unconsciously building a Rosetta stone path leading the way into the death and simultaneous resurrection that is the Post Human. Mutatis mutandis, and along with it, a non-linear mode of thought whose very nature requires paradigmatic agnosticism. Like a Stenberg montage of constructivist veritas, the audio hieroglyphs may turn out to simply be foreshadowing for Vernor Vinge's "singularity."
Finally, in eschewing the culture of eschewing, without thoughtfulness, we must take care not simply react (thus merely carrying out a new set of instructions) and inadvertently to re-enter the Mobius rollercoaster, screaming prepackaged exaltations at the apex of the loop as the Third World unplugged and intelligent agents in their binary infancy deliberately creep over the edges of the barbaricum into the deepest heart of Rome to reap its bountiful harvest in Technicolor.
Are you Candidate 2012?
Adario Strange is a multi-media artist who recently produced the CD "The Art Of Secrets" for Robotstar and released a book of essays under the same title published by Mars Magazine Books. He has written poetry for Nike, was a radio DJ, a VP at MCA Records and the Editor-In-Chief of The Source magazine.
© CTheory. All Rights Reserved