“We see again, in our own sad age, the stark extremes of political inflexibility and anarchic revolt, insuperable backwardness and a gaudy cult of progress.” -from Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra
“Karaoke supports less the democratic idea that everyone can have a shot if they want one and more the democratic practice that everyone wants a shot if there’s one on offer.” -from Karaoke Culture by Dubravka Ugrešić
-Yes… why not for the president of the United States as well? Or the “untied” states while we are at it?
Is there something more apt to describe where we’ve landed than Dubravka Ugrešić’s term “karaoke culture”? We have a reality TV star and national joke as an American president. He epitomizes the dumbing-down of culture, is the zenith of anti-intellectual, anti-Obama backlash and embodies the ‘problem of ideological manipulation’ that Ugrešić chronicles in her book – and others have explored at great length and in a more historical and philosophical context.
Ugrešić’s eerily prescient book, though, looks at the all-consuming, short-attention-span digital culture that saturates our lives and gives us the recipe for the toxic concoction in which we’re now dissolving:
- The internet and other digital platforms/channels
“The Internet is the final, most explosive powder keg strewn on the eternal flame of our fantasies. The Internet is the cornerstone of both the new democratic revolution and the computer user’s evolution into a free man, a man forever transformed (Never again a slave!), eyes fixed ahead on the screen (a “window to the world”), whose hands self-confidently control an emancipatory mouse: a proletarian-man, an amateur-man, a man finally worthy of the name.” – from Karaoke Culture
- The rise of the “amateur expert” whose opinion is suddenly as valid as an actual expert
“Amateurs, Keen claims, devastate systems that are based on expertise and destroy the institutions of author and authorship, information (newspapers are slowly disappearing, blogs are taking over), education (Wikipedia, the work of anonymous amateurs, has replaced encyclopedias, the work of experts), and art and culture (amateurs create their own culture based on borrowing, expropriation, appropriation, intervention, recycling, and remaking; they are simultaneously the creators and consumers of this culture).”
“Maybe the problem is one of ideological manipulation? Today AA (the Anonymous or Amateur Author) is as untouchable as the teenager comfortably lounging on the tram seat. At sixty-years of age you stand next to him with bags full of groceries, struggling to keep your balance. Your legs hurt, and your single obsessive thought is how to give the uppity little schmuck a well-deserved slap in the face. You know it’s never going to happen, but the fantasy is good for your soul. If a little open hand communication isn’t an option, maybe a gentle word might help. But that’s not an option either, because, armed with his iPod and iPhone, the kid is both physically and mentally untouchable. And in any case, the kid is innocent, because he doesn’t see you. You don’t exist in his world. But he exists in yours.”
-from Karaoke Culture
- The info overload plus short attention span that make this possible
“Scientists tell us that our brain’s ability to adapt to new experiences is called neuroplasticity. They claim that from an evolutionary perspective this elasticity can be useful, but that it also means that left unused, brain function simply atrophies.”
“At this very moment my neuroplastic consciousness believes that God is an octopus and that his name is Paul. Because that’s what happens when you’ve more-or-less become an Internet junkie.” -from Karaoke Culture
- Alt facts: Using the dissolution of Yugoslavia as a case study for what we now see. We smugly thought former Yugoslavia to be so uncivilized and backwards, and patted ourselves on the back for our oh-so-democratic and stable ideals. But what do we face now but the makings of the same kind of thing only on a grander, more fractious scale?
“The metaphor of the “broken telephone” can be used in regard to all countries of the former Yugoslavia. Having entered every sphere of life, the language of the “broken telephone” is omnipresent: in the media, institutional life, politics, the way people think, their interpersonal relations, their everyday lives. As a result, many crimes remain un-investigated, many victims have been rendered silent, many criminals declared heroes, many thieves business people, many idiots intellectuals (and the odd intellectual an idiot), many perpetrators victims, many victims perpetrators, many crazies normal, and many normal people crazy. As we speak, Radovan Karadžić is playing “broken telephone” at the Hague Tribunal. He brushes off words as if they were pesky little thistles. Every word of the indictment that sounds like ravish, he coolly transforms into lavish.” -from Karaoke Culture
- Suspension of disbelief: “I can’t really believe this is happening” and… yet it escalates
“Unlike my neighbors, I didn’t take the alarms too seriously. Today I wonder where this “lapse” came from, this arrogance that doesn’t take danger “too seriously”? At the time I firmly believed that the majority of people wouldn’t follow their caricature-like leaders, wouldn’t destroy everything they’d spent years building together, and wouldn’t cast their childrens’ futures to the wind. Maybe this belief was to blame for my “lapse.” I refused to believe what my impaired vision had witnessed over the preceding few years. And so it was that in September 1991 I refused to believe the evidence that was right in front of me. Maybe it was actually down there in the cellar, with a small human sample for company, that I should have allowed the dirty little thought to sink in: that many people were actually turned on by the war. New, sudden thrills filled the vacuity of their lives; overnight, personal frustrations found an outlet, personal losses could be made good, personal intolerances hung out to air. There, in the cellar, an older neighbor with rat-like features scurried into my “deformed” field of vision. People said he had illegally moved into the five-bedroom apartment of an old woman who died soon afterwards. The square meters of the apartment thus became his. That very first day in the cellar, he appeared wearing a red armband, a pistol buried in his back pocket. Nobody asked him about the armband or what it meant, or where he got the pistol; we listened intently to his garbled instructions. The very next day the neighbor had a deputy, complete with matching red armband and pocket pistol. The young deputy was unemployed and married to a diligent and hard-working neighbor. At some point her biological clock had started ticking, so she found the young man and bore him three children, after which he’d served and exhausted his purpose. The armband and the revolver gave the jerk his dignity back. Until then, he didn’t even know what dignity was.” – from Karaoke Culture
- Media war and complicit silence. The media smear campaign, vilifying people who are not the real villains. Everyone who should know better remains silent.
“When the media lynching had reached its most vicious height, a neighbor stopped me and asked: “Well then, neighbor, when are you getting out?” The “out,” I assumed, referred to when I was getting out of Croatia. “Why should I be getting out?” I asked. “Well, you keep writing those lies about us.” “And you’ve read what I write?” “Why would I? Are you saying that everyone else is lying!?”” – from Karaoke Culture
- Sexism. Sexism. Sexism.
“My sensitive literary nature can’t resist exhibiting a selection of the insults (which refer both to me and the witch’s cell) proffered by Croatian journalists, writers, and critics, the literati among the literate. I recognize that any psychoanalyst could here accuse me of taking exhibitionist pleasure in the repeated—and this time voluntary—exposition of public insults. But you know what? “Victims” also have a right to narrative pleasure—particularly so if narration is their profession. All in all, in my fellow writers’ scribblings I am described as: A woman with “deformed vision”; A woman who has no understanding for a “people celebrating its own state and freedom of speech”; A woman who has “neither taste nor sense of proportion”; A woman who has opened her mouth “in the wrong manner, the wrong place, and at the wrong time”; A woman with a “limited perspective”; A woman writer with a “specific talent,” whose writing is “scrappy knitting”; A “murderess of the Croatian nation who kills with her pen”; A “broad persecuting Croatia”; A broad who “big mouths, gossips, and denounces”; A woman worthy of “contempt”; A woman in need of a Croatian bonfire “to warm her heart”; A member of “one of the organizational nuclei of international resistance to and defamation of the Croatian Homeland War”; A member of a crew of “slightly unhappy, and at any rate frustrated women”; A “dirty liar”; A “Yugonostalgic”; A “national Daltonist”; A “salon internationalist”; A “spleenful and spiteful surveyor of freedom”; A “squealer offering recipes for freedom from the long-tainted kitchens of the European pseudo-left and pseudo-right”; A woman with “mental problems”; A woman who is “mixed-up”; A woman who “drops her dress in a storm”; A woman ready to “sell her homeland for a hundred German marks”; A woman who for “a little cash, but with obviously great joy, denounces and spits on her homeland”; A “plume of the failed communist regime”; An “informer for the European Community”; A “carefully chosen interlocutor of Brussels and the European Community”; A woman of “dubious repute”; A person “not in the least subjected to harassment”; A “homeless intellectual”; A “grande dame of Croatian post-communism”; A self-immolator (who if she returns to Zagreb “needs to be immediately surrounded by a dozen fire engines, have 300 hoses aimed at her, and whose every word needs to be doused in water”); A “furious woman”; A “Yugo-nostalgic sicko”; A woman who was ready for “a better psychiatric clinic”; A member of a group of “exalted daughters of the revolution”; A “traitor to the homeland”; A “lobbyist who has lost her voice”; A woman “conspiring against Croatia”; A “feminist”; A “feminist raping Croatia”; An “anti-Croatian feminist”; A member of a group of “self-centered middle-aged women who have serious problems with their own ethnic, ethical, human, intellectual and political identities”; A “public enemy”; A woman with a “miserable destiny”; A woman who has “committed moral…” -from Karaoke Culture
- Anger: The anger, and helplessness, of the masses leads many to embrace the “strength” of dictators and totalitarianism.
“The urban public space has become a field on which to exercise repressed sadomasochism. The stronger have their way, the weaker suck it up.” – from Karaoke Culture
A fit vehicle for the weak, in their helplessness, to reach for not only self-exploitation but the exploitation and torture of others, rampant and venomous nationalism, and worse, as the book Age of Anger points out again and again:
“It isn’t just that the strong exploit the weak; the powerless themselves are prone to enviously imitate the powerful. But people who try to make more of themselves than others end up trying to dominate others, forcing them into positions of inferiority and deference.”
Nietzsche: ‘Life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overwhelming of the alien and the weaker, oppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own form, incorporation, and at least, at its mildest, exploitation.’” -from Age of Anger