Kill Your Idols X: Manufactured Obsolescence, Jamming, 22/08/2017

When I first thought of this post before the weekend, I figured I’d spend more time talking about Noam Chomsky. But I think now that too many have already spent too much.

Manufacturing Consent did a great job of analyzing the methods that modern power centres – um – manufacture our consent. Chomsky walks you through the material structure of the institutions and social networks that keep this self-destructive morality popular.

A thinker should always be careful that they don't
end up on a t-shirt, because then they start writing
for the t-shirt alone. You should always be able to
write for the t-shirt, but never let it become your
primary focus. The world is at least as complicated
as a good book.
We’re in an age where more than just states control and inform these powerful institutions. Our society is more complex. There are more channels and platforms to spread ideas, more social networks to build alliances than ever before. This is true for revolutionaries as well as those deeply invested in the status quo.

That’s the lesson of the Russian Revolution, as Gramsci saw. Lenin and the Bolshevik Party succeeded because Russia’s social order was held together by so few threads. The capitalist democracies were more complex. Now much more so than then.

Chomsky’s analysis is simple but insightful. The for-profit motives of private media companies encourage them to build mutually beneficial relationships with their wealthy investors and shareholders. Same goes for the regular advertisers that bring a platform most of its daily revenue. All groups with interests in the current way of things to protect.

Large media companies respond by letting the ideas and beliefs of these groups pervade their productions. Chomsky focussed almost entirely on news media at the time, but it’s true for more metaphorical cultural producers too. Threats like catastrophic lawsuits can keep rebel organizations in line.

Fearmongering with boogeymen like terrorists (Asians, Muslims) or communists (Jews) or criminal gangs (blacks, Latin Americans) keeps people from concentrating on more fundamental questions.

Those are the five specific techniques and sets of broad messaging ideas Chomsky identifies in the contemporary media ecology end up – um – fabricating our agreement with the current way of the world.

It was a worthwhile insight that set up the basic guidebook that critical activists have used ever since to analyze ideological pressures in our media and culture. I’m glad Chomsky did this. But he hasn’t followed up this work with any political or media analysis of similar worth, originality, and power.

I do consider Chomsky's analysis of how the American oligarchy has
fairly direct control of news media channels through financial
pressure and direct ownership incomplete. There are plenty of less-
intentional, less-directional vectors for ideological influence. But I
should also be honest that I understand perfectly well why the
Washington Post didn't run a giant exposé on Amazon. Not that
it was anything so crude as direct pressure. It would have been a
presumption shared by pretty much everyone around the staff that
you take a pass on looking too much into the boss' other company.
Most of his career since Manufacturing Consent is a continued media blitz of interviews and books repeating that same message in different contexts. But he’s always drifted toward the direction of criticism for the US government’s role in that media ecology.

Now, that’s important. Chomsky is an American, and so has a responsibility to make his primary target as a critic his own country. It’s a patriotic duty.

The problem I have with Chomsky is that his anti-Americanism has consumed his entire perspective. I discussed in a photo caption yesterday how Chomsky so easily blinded himself to Russia’s petty military imperialism. Putin seeks a strutting prestige for himself and his country, as if Crimea, Trans-Dniester, Donetsk, or Abkhazia were jewels on a charm bracelet.

Yet Chomsky gives Putin a pass. Interfering in other country’s elections, peddling a radical Russian Orthodox nationalist ideology across Europe and Asia? The DNC hack was America getting a taste of its own medicine, he said.

Fair enough, since America has overthrown the governments of countries all over Asia, Africa, and Latin America. That doesn’t give ecclesiastic-ethnic nationalism a pass. Nobody is supposed to get a pass. The essential concept of being a critical activist is that nobody gets a pass.

So there’s the hypocrisy. But there’s also his obsolescence. Chomsky hasn’t ever really updated this model of corporate media as ideological propaganda for the scale-free media networks of the internet era.

Frankly, I’m not sure that he can, because Chomsky’s model depends on editorial control of media organizations directed from a single, small set of oligarchical social networks. It lends itself a little too much to conspiracy theory, frankly. The internet is about platforms for diverse interactions, not broadcasters of uniform and universal channels.

Ultimately, Chomsky today is little more than a professional talking head taking up space that could otherwise go to more innovative and energetic critical theorists.

This feels like very directionless reflection now. I’m going to wrap this up tomorrow.

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