There's an interesting extract from Adam Kotsko's new book Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television in The New Enquiry this month. Kotsko starts with a simple but intriguing question: why are so many of our most cherished television characters and personalities - from Eric Cartman to Tony Soprano - sociopaths?
"Remember the good old days when university professors could look down on unsophisticated folks because those hillbillies naïvely believed in church, motherhood, and apple pie? Things have changed a lot, at least in my village. I am now the one who naïvely believes in some facts because I am educated, while the other guys are too unsophisticated to be gullible: “Where have you been? Don’t you know that Mossad and the CIA did it?” (Latour, 'Why has critique run out of steam?')
These days, as Bruno Latour implies, almost everybody seems to have become a 'conspiracy theorist'. I've recently spoken to several students who have become interested in supposedly 'subliminal' occult imagery in television advertisements or music videos.
To give you some idea of what I'm talking about, the peculiar Baphomet-like pose above is a frame - barely perceptible on casual viewing - from Rihanna's 'Umbrella' video. Those interested in discussing these weird images in Rihanna's oeuvre can enjoy a myriad of breathlessly inventive websites linking the pop diva to witchcraft, devil worship or the Illuminati. The creators of these occult conspiracy websites (e.g. Vigilant Citizen) often present themselves as concerned 'netizens' providing a vital public service by raising awareness about the celebrity demons in our midst. Many, too, seem to share conservative Christian values and their analyses are often grossly misogynistic where female celebrities are concerned; Rihanna, for example, is an 'Illuminati Whore of Death', according to one rather unforgiving website. Indeed, these elite-hating 'truthers' typically assume that the celebrity stars of these videos are 'pulling the strings' and are responsible for the 'subliminal' images in their videos; but weirdly, these inquisitive souls almost never discuss how this process might actually work, how contemporary music videos are produced or circulated, or who gains from the incorporation of occult iconography. To my mind, these are the more interesting questions to ask about occult imagery: what is the significance of these images for contemporary media audiences? Who is responsible for producing them - and why (even if the answer is that they serve simply to generate some profitable ersatz controversy)?
In attempting to answer such questions, it's necessary to get beyond the widespread academic mockery of the belief in 'subliminal' messages. Charles Acland's book Swift Viewing: The Popular Life of Subliminal Influence argues that we ought to take seriously the widespread popular belief in the existence and power of subliminal media messages. Acland proposes that while there is precious little evidence that subliminal messages, in the strict sense of the term, have actually been much used in film or media production, it is nonetheless interesting to consider why the subliminal thesis holds popular appeal. (Acland also notes that this thesis 'curiously exists side by side with the view that the media have little or no impact upon an individual’s thinking', a paradox that puts me in mind of Mike Wayne's contention, in Marxism and Media Studies, that contemporary capitalist subjectivity is typically 'split', manifesting both credulity and cynicism about the world at one and the same time).
Psychoanalysis perhaps offers some answers here. Psychotic delusion is characterized not so much by incoherence as by a kind of crazy, 'excessive' coherence and certainty: here we might think of David Icke, who often makes some solid points about real conspiracies - more on that below - but who asserts the truth of highly speculative or downright irrational ideas with fascistic conviction. Lacan reads the paranoid position as one of total certainty in which the subject experiences an unbearable proximity to a malevolent other that exercises a total grip over the subject's inner life but which nevertheless remains opaque and enigmatic. This explains the frustrating refusal in many conspiracy websites to name the producers, directors, technicians or other creative personnel involved in producing the symbols and images with which they are concerned; they are fixated solely on the text. Writing about conspiracy theories and paranoia in her 2009 book Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, Jodie Dean writes:
"Lacan refers to a 'captivating image'. The psychotic fastens on this image, positioning himself in relation to it. Insofar as this relation remains at the level of the imaginary, it is not a symbolic relation capable of anchoring meaning or offering a clear degree of separation between the subject and the other. On the contrary, precisely because the relationship is on the imaginary plane, it is characterized by fear, rivalry and aggression"
But what, in political terms, does the fascination with Satanist and Illuminati-related symbolism betoken? Acland's book suggests that public interest in subliminal messages presupposes a basic critical orientation towards media communications that is at least potentially progressive. This is consistent with Jodi Dean's work on conspiracy theories (Aliens in America), which argues that conspiracism and rational political critique are intimately related. From this point of view, we can speculate that the interest in occult messages and symbols is a placeholder for class consciousness. Most poor and working-class people are well aware of their own powerlessness; but for those without a materialist, class analysis of capitalism, this powerlessness can be explained as an effect of manipulation by the aliens, lizard people or Jews who are supposedly pulling our strings. Perhaps, in all their naivety, such irrational explanations are an expression of a repressed desire for world-historical meaning at a time when, we are told, all of the ideological battles have been fought and there is no longer anything in which to believe beyond work, money and markets. If Alain Badiou is correct, contemporary capitalism is 'worldless', that is, it fails to provide any shared 'cognitive map' of our reality; conspiracy theories seem to offer a form of escape from this condition into meaning and significance. However one theorizes this phenomenon, I'd be interested to know more - from people who are not actual lunatics and misogynists - about how and why certain artists and producers are flirting with occult imagery.
And finally, it is also worth saying that the tout court rejection of all so-called 'conspiracy theories' is just as mistaken as the wide-eyed belief in hollow moons, little green men or shape-shifting reptilian overlords. While some conspiracies are clearly irrational, we do nevertheless live in a world shaped by the plotting of the capitalist class, which is Machiavellian to the core. The list of ruling class 'false flag' operations, for example - Gleiwitz, Northwoods, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Gladio, to mention just a few well-established twentieth-century cases - is extensive. This is something we should not let the complacent 'conspiracy deniers' - a group that includes many of those who identify as radicals and leftists - forget.
Now that the nationalistic frenzy of the Olympics is over, 'public service' television is reverting to a more open assault on the working class. Channel 4, not for the first time, is indulging in some shameless class propaganda tonight in the form of Tricks of the Dole Cheats, which is scheduled for broadcast at 8pm. For those who'd rather take action than get angry, there is a Facebook page supplying more information about the production, as well as some useful counter-arguments and some suggestions as to what people can do to protest.
Postscript: As many people have commented in the social media, the programme broadcast by Channel 4 focused less on the 'dole cheats' themselves - raising the question of why the programme was given such a stigmatising title - than on the ways in which slack procedures at Job Centres allow claimants to 'get away with' (as the presenter Morland Sanders put it) not looking for work. Despite this slightly unexpected focus, the programme nevertheless managed to demonise benefit claimants as well as Job Centre staff (many of whom feel uneasy that the government is trying to prevent them from helping those in need). As the void blog argues, the programme also appeared to be 'laying the ground for privatisation of benefit services, with a handful of recruitment sector spivs brought in to show how much better they would be at the job'.
Christian Garland's email response to Channel 4 makes very clear why such programming is unacceptable, setting the programme in the context of the government's current drive to cut the cost of benefits paid to the poor and disabled:
Dear Channel 4,
I write to you to add my voice to the many people unhappy with the Dispatches programme Tricks of the Dole Cheats, aired at 20:00 on Monday evening (13/08/12). To start with, the salacious, eye-grabbing title, one that the Daily Mail or Express - or for that matter, The Sun, would be proud of, this was clearly aimed at generating maximum tabloid hysteria, and of course, viewing figures, for a shabby apology for 'factual' programming, which even by the (very) low standard set by Channel 4, scraped a new all-time low.
Whilst the quality of Channel 4's factual output - as for all other kinds sadly - has been in steep and serious decline for the best part of 20 years now, what is especially dubious about this 30 minute tabloid hack job, was the extremely unwelcome contribution it made to the Tory-led coalition's ongoing assault on anyone unfortunate enough to have to have dealings with the punitive benefits system, as well as the media's propagandist line in the demonisation of them.
The programme's title was also extremely misleading, since the expected 'tricks' of 'dole cheats' - seriously, was that copy and pasted from The Sun online, and slightly revised to avoid copyright breaches? - were not forthcoming at all. It would have been contemptable enough if this had been another straightforward attack on the unemployed and other claimants, but the programme still had much to offer in that regard, even though the title was completely different from the implied content.
Morland Sanders, the presenter, who in the best tradition of those who speak from where they don't know - or have any idea - took the miserable reality of claiming JSA, and the requirement that claimants record what they have 'been doing' to find employment every two weeks when signing on, as 'getting away with it'. As someone who has had that distinctly tepid pleasure in the past on two seperate occasions, I can speak from experience, and tell you that were a claimant not to undertake this (yes, largely pointless) fortnightly task, they would have their JSA frozen forthwith. To quote and counter Morland Sanders here, a JSA claimant can most certainly not '[...] write on their jobseeker's agreement, "I'm not going to apply for this job, and I'd rather stay on benefits". So, to answer Morland Sanders' speculative assertion, 'It does make me think, that if you wanted to actively avoid work and stay on benefits, you could.' No, you couldn't.
The requirement is part of the punitive workfare regime that has existed in some form or another in the UK, since 1984 - a sickly apt year. The Tory coalition has accelerated and intensified the punitive welfare-to-work regime of putting claimants under constant pressure and always shifting the burden for unemployment back onto the shoulders of the individual: social problems, societal problems, become individual failings, and a matter of 'not trying hard enough' and 'not applying yourself'. Recently of course, Grayling and Duncan-Smith have excelled themselves in trying to introduce the 'work programme' in which claimants are mandated to work unpaid or have their derisory JSA withdrawn - the kind of choice offered by the DWP being thus: you don't have one. The sick irony of all of this 'getting people back to work' is that there is none to go to.
The programme made much of the cost to the taxpayer of those working whilst claiming benefits - £226 million; but offshore tax avoidance costs in the region of £15-25 billion, so it is curious Channel 4 should choose to focus on the 0.8 % of benefit expenditure lost to fraud, and not the ongoing efforts of the super-rich and corporations to avoid paying tax in the UK, a figure which dwarfs the relatively tiny one spent on benefit fraud, and at a time when Gideon Osborne repeats the necessity of a further £18 billion of cuts to what little remains of the already inadequate social safety net. Once again, 99.2% of benefit expenditure was not fraudulent, and it is remarkable that Channel 4 should prefer to focus on those at the bottom of the social pyramid, something it has a tawdry recent history of indulging in, what others have called 'poverty porn' - Benefit Busters, The Fairy Jobmother, etc. There is, after all, only so long dinner parties can be enlivened by chatter of house prices and getting the kids into a good school, so this sort of vicarious titiliation offers something to avoid that sort of repetition; however, it does nothing at all for Channel 4's reputation.