After a little way’s into USA network’s premier of Mr. Robot in 2015, the feeling began to crystallize for me and probably others.
I just began restarting a personal blog. My political tendencies were taking shape around my commitment to Internet freedom and the greater hacker community influenced by the threat of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Scared shitless that copyright goons would seize my parents’ router, I immersed myself deeper in the culture to build up a pseudo-militant persona.
I got the first four episodes after an Internet friend kept pressuring me. Before that I only saw one image, later to be seen on different cringe threads. “OUR DEMOCRACY HAS BEEN HACKED,” superimposed over Rami Malek’s hooded face.
Not long after walking away having enjoyed it well enough, I published the first real article on the blog. It seemed like a cozy blend of opposition to intellectual property cut with an acceptance of money being a concrete social thing, simply declaring that media isn’t a tangible item to be commodified. It can’t work. This made me feel steadfast and edgy but grounded and practical, probably engineered to take solace in being looked at seriously enough by everyday people, not needing to engage in significant explanations.
That was my mindset for a while, in that light of Pirate Party support and free culture vigilance. Of course, I grew to see why things I love are being threatened: Why open content and the desire and tools to expand it was scaring the shit out of the entertainment industry, weaponizing their dollars. The problem was the whole structure, the whole interwoven combinations, as well as the narrative of protecting them and ensuring their appeasement.
But looking back on that brief stint of not fully knowing where I stood economically, nor having a conception of a social stance being integral to an economic one, it brought back memories of what was dispensed my way. In them, I found an uneasiness distinct in the artificial tones playing out casually; like they couldn’t afford to pretend anymore, so they needed to adapt themselves by wearing plastic sentiments.
Mr. Robot did so by sprinkling a Fight Club rewrite with cult jargon about onion routing, GNOME, KDE and “hacking”, with a layer of corporate critical, post-Snowden conspiracy fantasy and a slice of appealing to those with emotional problems. Basically all the qualities of the cyberpunk communities I would frequent.
The conversation it must have taken beforehand seems obvious. “That linux-hacker computer-thing has a pretty sizable community online. Lets tap into it by making a TV show about hacking, evil businessmen and social anxiety.”
Immediately, its easy to know what I’m talking about in total, but it seems like this particular feature has more depth to it. There is a sincerity in things like Mr. Robot and countless other media, normally when dealing with trends or niches. But its not an advocacy of the content, instead its a mesh of (plastic) sentiments as a vehicle for richness, of allure when the intensity in scenarios is coated with a positive or heroic representation of the protagonists. The intent is normally for the same reasons as any TV or film undertaking, using these subcultures for spectacle.
However, it also attempts to sabotage the potential in politically-oriented subcultures by using their dialog and ideals for the reverse purposes. And indeed they accomplish them when million dollar documentaries about whistleblowers make their budget back, or when coverage of outcry sends ratings into the stratosphere. When it isn’t the hacker or the guerrilla fighter depicted as heartless and chaotic, their heroism is livened to such a proportion that it accomplishes a mutually opposing interest in the real world.
We can boil down the marketing of sentiments, isolated from the total spectacle, by its power in subtlety. You won’t find intimately relatable people on any TV network or social media anymore, since their only role is distraction. A break from the busy mind. But when the distraction becomes toxic complacency, and those who acknowledge it want a feeling of rejuvenating empowerment like the young beginners of social awareness and political identity, you can find little bursts anywhere that reconcile two halves which ultimately serve one. The Market, then the sentiment: the illusion of a message.
This is one of advertising’s basic survival mechanisms. People won’t care about whats being offered if it feels disconnected from their own world, so it targets as many specific types of people it can for net turnout. It used to be that popular behaviors were copied, or even lived by advertisers, and rewritten to sell. But now they’ve infiltrated deeper, attaching as many timely embellishments as possible, applying research on general social dissatisfaction within these subcultures. All to sell not only representation, but commonality, which is consequentially monopolized.
What makes the end result so plastic is how impersonal the words and images are. For things so integral to personalities, they are shouted off from unfamiliar places and meant to entice those who recognize them. For those observant of this process, it has an Uncanny Valley effect: Relatively agreeable dialogs or situations depicted in contrived environments, rather than playing out in our most familiar collectives, muddles the original texture. For others, when facing the monopoly on cultural representation, there is little choice but to consume its products and enjoy the most of the stories possible, instead of feeling right about the representation in equal measure. To watch yourself be played out by another instead of grasping the actions yourself.
To put it all together, the traits of socially relevant subcultures are accounted for and implemented into commodities and advertisements, which have a corrupted similarity to their source material. We are subjected to deeply engineered versions of our own passions. This is probably why those who enter into a subculture through the contrived channels experience higher fascination when entering the personal spaces, even experiencing feelings of inadequacy, limited belonging.
Inversion of the market by some degree of non-profit causes are not exempt from this. They have the same stench, coming from the same batch of trendy gloss. The framing is distinctly impersonal, held at a distance between viewer and speaker with a long cord of familiarity traveling the length.
The adverts by TruthOrange made it perfectly clear to me. I knew of the typical picture of suits in a boardroom calculating loss and subdividing, but their anti-smoking ads made up entirely of twenty-year olds and Trap music in the background allowed me to peer into those rooms and almost taste the words on their lips. Beat for beat, I knew the formula at the first second.
“If we make our characters young, black, sassy and loud about social issues, talking about ‘recent studies’ and ‘the supreme court’, we can hook onto that burgeoning niche with an appeal to realness.”
It becomes obvious that its not a matter of changing the approach to creating media “for” or “about” such interests. There is not any adequate means of offering groups what they want that can’t generate plastic sentimentality. Its a consequence of market necessities mass filtering socially relevant passions and dispensing hollow spectacles. The sentiments must be well earned, derived from the groups alone.
The gap between the continuation of hierarchies and people’s needs and desires soon becomes marketed. Something new becomes obvious, so they bank on it — possibly a quelling tactic. Resistance itself, the concept, is now a casualty to advertising and plastic moving images, totally displaced from intimately building transformation on a given scale. In its place are those plastic tones in the form of hashtags and mass produced protest signs. Now they’ve run their course for so long, that we begin living them.
You see democrats calling for “resistance” to Trump, but in the fashion of Love not Hate without any praxis whatsoever.
You see people in the streets demonstrating for minimum wage increases with an attitude only suitable for toppling the wage system entirely.
You see clenched fists implemented in political parties and safe, impersonal non-profits.
Of course, its foolish to suggest that large scale, genuine sentiments can break through under capitalism. Its for that reason that “indie” media or other highly contained items are distinguished from all the rest, always proving the model of the adorable little hundred dollar movie that tried. From this, we can derive that fully realized passions not debased by market intrusion is tightly bound up in social revolution.
For gaining the strength to build a true, militant culture free of interference, my hopes are in the inner-city apartment blocks. In the neighborhoods behind the construction sites. In the rural clusters of homes in Appalachia. Where material sorrows exist, there is a young person working to relay anarchy to the dejected. Where there are obscure inclinations toward a better personal network, there is a community who shares them. There is no place or people where trust is stronger, where faith in self-determination and actualization is more defined, and certainly more plausible.
The act of uprooting planned culture through self-organized media outlets, cultural hubs and social structures in the present is probably the right start for revolt entirely. Not simply to keep it healthy for a time, but also to nourish its roots now so they can grow deeper when the scorched earth is removed. And even then, it certainly goes a little deeper as I see it.
People actually building a society within the current one with its own priorities and decisions, negating the ones issued to them, is the general direction. I think people should get to a point where they aren’t working jobs or paying rent or bills or taxes pertaining to the outer, private and public society, but pursuing their existence contextual to what communities they themselves have erected. If they can fend off repression and infiltration sufficiently, they can grow out and revitalize what they keep from the old world.
Among their defense networks and coordination assemblies, there are well-earned, non-contrivedsentiments springing from people’s intimately connected expressions in the pursuit of autonomy. They become the social vessel for what is being enlarged by the voices in the streets. The voices are critical and hopeful, the adapted essence of the situationists for what they themselves adapted to.
Our challenge, this particular one, is in the monopoly on commonality. The brands, TV and Internet markets hold the reigns of trust, given total guidance over our passions (themselves not in our control) or warping what we’re slowly realizing. Meanwhile, we distrust those who most deeply share the ills of class society or the significant issues in a common area.
The continual pressure doesn’t offer many options without dressing up the same melancholy. We wallow in the romantic misery of being oneself in a society of strangers who walk and talk kind of like us, inventing a new pride in being the real thing. Or, we dethrone the channels of impersonal adaption which alienate our passions and aspirations from ourselves and our experiences in the hope of total self-determination.