Survival+ 7: Simulacrum and the Politics of Experience   (April 3, 2009)

Simulacrum and the Politics of Experience

Just as our "solutions" are shaped by how we frame "the problem," our understanding of our world is shaped by a "politics of experience" created by our cultural milieu, education, mass media and government.

As noted in the excerpt from R.D. Laing above, the key feature of "the obvious" is its elusiveness. Thus we don't consciously formulate the notion that what we buy and own defines our "true self;" that notion is like air, everywhere around us and thus not in our conscious awareness.

"The politics of experience" is by definition not selected or consciously chosen; it is precisely the invisible assumptions we live by which are so unconscious that we cannot even recognize them as anything but "obvious" without great effort.

As an example, consider the work of author Douglas Rushkoff. Rushkoff's reply to an interview question on the pervasive consequences of ubiquitous marketing reveals how media/marketing has created an unquestioned "politics of experience" in which one's identity and sense of self is constructed almost entirely by what one buys:

Children are being adultified because our economy is depending on them to make purchasing decisions. So they're essentially the victims of a marketing and capitalist machine gone awry. You know, we need to expand, expand, expand. There is no such thing as enough in our current economic model and kids are bearing the brunt of that. ... So they're isolated, they're alone, they're desperate. It's a sad and lonely feeling. ...

The net effect of all of this marketing, all of this disorienting marketing, all of the shock media, all of this programming designed to untether us from a sense of self, is a loss of autonomy. You know, we no longer are the active source of our own experience or our own choices. Instead, we succumb to the notion that life is a series of product purchases that have been laid out and whose qualities and parameters have been pre-established.

As Laing also described, the past "politics of experience" is largely inaccessible to us for the same reason we cannot discern how unobvious our own "obvious" truly is: the assumptions were so deep and elusive that contemporaneous accounts never even mention them, and thus histories are blind as well except by extrapolation of what was considered worthy of comment.

An excellent analogy to this problem can be found in the common Mississippi river barge of the 19th century. So common was this mode of river transport that no one bothered to fashion a drawing of one or count them. They literally vanished without a trace simply because they were too ubiquitous to elicit notice. Recently a few representatives have been exhumed from the mud; these forgotten artifacts are our only evidence of what was once unremarkable but vitally important.

Thus is it difficult for us to register how drastically our experience has changed over time. What seems "normal" and "obvious" to us—the constant bombardment of marketing, the financial stress of over-indebtedness, the insecurity of employment, the reliance on powerful psychotropic prescription medications to "get through life"—are actually artifacts of an obviously destructive set of assumptions and values.

Individuals pursue their livelihoods in this peculiar state of unawareness in which they are unaware of what they are unaware of, and unaware of the consequences of the "obvious" incentives and assumptions that underpin their sense of identity and seemingly "conscious" choices.

Consider a mortgage broker or salesperson. In the real world, their compensation depends on persuading a "consumer" (a word loaded with subtle assumptions and incentives) to take on more debt to acquire a good or service.

This individual is not consciously seeking to overburden another individual with too much debt, but this is the net result of what's "normal" and "obvious" in the salesperson "doing their job" and the "consumer" setting out to achieve what he/she has internalized as "happiness" or "success:" a bigger house, a nicer car, a faster computer, a trendier outfit, a top-notch personal trainer, etc.

As we explore the elusive qualities of our common "obvious" experience, we must differentiate between the mostly unconscious actions of most of us and the carefully plotted conscious actions of those seeking to influence our experience for specific gain.

For instance, most elected officials do not set out to be evil or to acquire wealth and power at the expense of others; most are well-meaning people who are attracted to the power of office but also to the notion of doing some good or serving their community.

Since running for office requires vast sums of money, they find that listening to those willing to donate large sums to their campaign makes sense. Once these lobbyists and representatives of the Plutocracy have aired their concerns and interests in various specifics, it only makes sense for the elected official to pay attention to their concerns.

And since the long-term consequences of satisfying the donors—national insolvency—is safely in the future, then it "obviously" makes sense to tend to the business at hand, which is getting re-elected and juggling all the competing demands of various well-funded interest groups.

The average voter—and how many citizens actually cast a ballot? Some 40% on average?—has little interest in most of the complexities of governance, and so the elected official need not trouble themselves with their views other than auto-responses to the usual "noise" of "fringe" issues: cruelty to pets, some foreign policy imbroglio, etc.

Thus "just doing my job" and pursuing "what's obvious" can lead to the reinforcing crises we now face. In the politics if our collective experience, we're all simply doing what was obvious as officials, employees, consumers and voters.

But there is another class of citizenry for whom "the obvious" is an invitation to conscious manipulation.

For example: the first project of "the Powers That Be" is to deny the existence of The Powers That Be via a sustained propaganda campaign touting the great opportunities, justice and equality of our society and economy. The goal is to shape our interpretation of our experience into a politically pliable complacency which leaves the powers and influence of the Plutocracy safely unquestioned and even unseen.

The "politics of experience" which operates at a very subconscious level includes all the myths, incentives and assumptions which form our worldview.

Here is another example: "the rugged individual" myth that is core to American society has many positive elements—for instance, the ideal of individual responsibility for one's life and actions—but it also works to mask political and financial overreach by the plutocracy/Powers That Be by cloaking large-scale movements of vast profits and power as the disconnected workings of unrelated individuals.

For example, the "politics of experience" of the subprime mortgage meltdown was presented by the Mainstream Media as the fault of irresponsible/greedy subprime borrowers. Then, as the U.S. government funneled hundreds of billions of dollars in bailout funds to save the Plutocracy from losses, the full extent of the corruption, greed, recklessness and fraud within the banking/mortgage plutocracy was revealed.

The "politics" behind that interpretation was revealed as a clever masking of the true cause: a Plutocracy operating without regard for laws or regulations and unhindered by political oversight. Please read Fiasco: The Inside Story of a Wall Street Trader and Greed, Fraud & Ignorance: A Subprime Insider's Look at the Mortgage Collapse for fuller accounts of the chicanery, greed and blatant disregard for law and risk.

The Mainstream Media (MSM), a highly centralized, corporate-owned structure, is a key player in shaping the politics of experience, as described in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. I have covered this topic many times, most recently in Our Schizophrenic Media and Garbage In, Garbage Out.

One key concept/mechanism in the politics of experience that we need to understand is how simulacrum are consciously presented as the "real thing" to protect the elites' power and privileges.

Simulacrum is defined as "an insubstantial form or semblance of something."

Consider how the word "capitalism," with its powerful invocations of free markets, capital freely risked, transparency, entrepreneurship, etc., is constantly deployed to mask crony capitalism, which fundamentally undermines all the key elements of true capitalism.

Thus the crony capitalism on display when stupendous government bailouts are sunk into a handful of Plutocracy strongholds is masked by explanations that "we're doing this to save capitalism."

Capitalism does not require government to borrow a trillion dollars and throw it into the coffers of the Plutocracy. What is being presented as "capitalism" by the Plutocracy and its MSM minions is in fact only a simulacrum of capitalism, a sham representation decorated with just enough shreds of resemblance to the real thing to fool the unwary.

Another key job of the MSM is to distract the populace from the political realities with endless entertainments, just as the Roman Empire provided the citizens of Rome with free bread and fully 175 days a year of free public entertainment.

So our national "politics of experience" serves three explicit goals:

  1. Provide a superficially plausible simulacrum of justice, opportunity, equality, capitalism, good governance, etc., so the unskeptical/credulous will comply with the wishes of The Powers That Be and blame themselves (or a carefully chosen "other group") for whatever is awry in their communities.
  2. Offer up a cornucopia of compelling distractions via mindless "entertainments" and a broadcast media presenting a nonstop diet of "crimes, cops and docs" and a simulacrum of meaning and authenticity via social networks. Please see my book Weblogs & New Media: Marketing in Crisis for more on the superficiality of social networking. Lastly, offer up a politically potent entertainment of divisive finger-pointing and rancor which works to create superficially appealing "us and them" ideologies.
  3. Construct a simulacrum of authenticity bound and defined by consuming, buying and presenting an attractive avatar in the media, i.e. a simulacrum of authority, "coolness" or celebrity which creates a sham "Infrastructure of Self" in a politics of experience dominated by hollow social networks, consuming/shopping and celebrity worship.

Meaning is achieved by one's outward appearance, either in physical trappings like clothing and cars, or via online avatars which project a simulation of "value" via popularity (how many "friends" do you have?), coolness (more "valuable" than character or accomplishment in a media organized to sell something 24/7), authority (how many university degrees do you have?) and "authenticity" (what do you own which is in scarcity or which has yet to be co-opted by marketers?)

Propaganda as Conscious Manipulation of the Politics of Experience

Though "propaganda" does not fully cover all that I mean by the politics of experience (which includes assumptions which are largely subconscious and subliminal, i.e. "the obvious"), it is nonetheless extremely important to understand how education actually makes one more vulnerable to carefully crafted marketing/propaganda. A classic text on the subject is Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes by Jacques Ellul.

Book reviewer Alexei Proussakov summarized what we need to look out for in his Amazon review of Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion:

Peoples' data-processing capabilities are limited. In the information-dense world people are unable to critically review all the information they receive. In order to be adequate to the situation, they resort to so-called heuristics, simple cues or rules for solving the problem. Heuristics are based on peoples' previous experience in similar situations.

Although relying on heuristics is sometimes a useful way of dealing with the onslaught of the decision-rich environment, basing our decisions primarily on heuristics can present some problems. First, heuristic cues that we possess may be false. Furthermore, a rule may be appropriate in certain situations but be misapplied in others. Another serious problem is that heuristics can be easily faked and manipulated. Knowledge of heuristics enables propagandists to control peoples' course of action.

The authors did a research of propaganda techniques and set four stratagems of persuasion:

  1. You create favorable climate for the message (called pre-persuasion). You subtly outline what picture has to be drawn in the end. Here you decide what way thoughts and perceptions of the audience will be shaped and channeled. Having established right basis for further discourse you secure the results you seek. At this stage you should identify some statements as axioms, i.e. `what everyone takes for granted' and `what everyone knows'. You attribute labels (positive or negative) to objects of further discussion, put black-or-white colors in non-disputable way. You use generalities to depict the situation - they are usually so ambiguous that you may change their meanings in the future. You use rumors and gossips.
  2. You create a `source credibility', i.e. establish a favorable image in the eyes of the audience. The message must come from `experts' or `unbiased' and, of course, personally attractive communicators. Try to switch on the self-persuasion mechanism of the audience.
  3. You create a message that focuses the target's attention and thoughts on exactly what you want them to think about. Research has identified at least five conditions that are likely lead to heuristics. Heuristics are most likely to be used when people do not have time to think carefully about the issue, when they are so overloaded with information that it becomes impossible to process it fully, or when they believe that the issues at stake are not very important. Heuristics are also used when people have little other knowledge or information on which to base a decision and when a given heuristics comes quickly to mind as they are confronted with a problem.
  4. You create an emotion of the target that will help you channel thoughts of audience in right direction. Fear appeals are most effective when they raise high levels of fear and suggest a doable and effective response (the authors also explain why sometimes fear does not work). Guilt: once we are filled with guilt, our thoughts and behavior are directed towards ridding ourselves of this feeling that's where propagandists take advantage of us. Feeling of obligation and indebtedness: large initial request and immediate concession by the requester invokes the norm of reciprocity -we concede. Feeling of commitment based on our desire to be self-consistent.

For example, to `soften up' the target you make him involved in a much smaller aspect of the action. This serves to commit the individual to `the case'. Once people are thus committed, the likelihood of their complying with the larger request increases. Another way is to show uniqueness of the offer (scarcity sells). Use the `minimum group paradigm': You are on my side (never mind that I created the terms); now act like it and do what we say.

Let us now move from the forces which power trends, reversals and phase shifts to those which power cycles of history.

"This guy is THE leading visionary on reality. He routinely discusses things which no one else has talked about, yet, turn out to be quite relevant months later."
--An anonymous comment about CHS posted on another blog.

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