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Четвъртък, 24 Март 2011 16:20

The Ideology of Idiocy

Julia Rone

Turtles mating; a man in a gorilla suit, banging his head against a fence; a baby dancing samba. These are only few of the most watched “contagious” video clips in Web 2.0 – the utopia of civic participation. In 1992 Karl Bernstein, one of the journalists who uncovered the Watergate affair, wrote a polemical piece on the culture of idiocy. Bernstein criticized the tabloidization of the media, the lack of investigative journalism, and the unprecedented success of “yellow” TV shows (Bernstein 1992). Eighteen years later, with the advent of the video social networks in our life, the idiot culture is coming of age. A coming of age that we ourselves are to be blamed for.

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To talk of tabloidization of the video websites seems problematical since they have been tabloid right from the start. The emphasis upon the entertaining, the sensational, the intimate, is their defining characteristic. In fact, the exact opposite of this process is taking place in video social networks such as YouTube and Vbox7: the gradual introduction of more and more serious content and the attempt to turn them into civic platforms, nevertheless keeping the focus on the amusing, the humorous, the shocking. “Hybridization in the yellow spectrum” is observed, similar to what happened to the yellow press, as described by Orlin Spassov (2009) – newspapers such as Weekend starting to include serious pieces in order to expand their influence. From the body of the “Obama Girl” and the dozens of videos of people falling off, tripping up, and the like in the fun zone, the head of civil society is rising. Slowly but steadily, the new media-centaurs are maturing right in front of us (Rone 2009). The problem is that in the process of maturing the very notion of civic participation is undergoing changes. The amusing and the serious, the unengaging and the socially engaged, are merging, and nothing remains the same.

Idiocy is not just a phase in the development of video social networks which is gradually being overcome. It is the very essence of YouTube and Vbox7 – the sap of life this type of media soak up and feed on. “We are in the process of creating, in sum, what deserves to be called the idiot culture. Not an idiot subculture, which every society has bubbling beneath the surface and which can provide harmless fun; but the culture itself. For the first time in our history the weird and the stupid and the coarse are becoming our cultural norm, even our cultural ideal.” (Bernstein 1992)

Actually Bernstein failed to make full use of the critical potential of the term “idiot culture” he coined. Staying focused on the polemics, on the offensive and derogative meaning of the word “idiot”, the journalist left out some of its key implications. We could infer these from the title of Dostoevsky’s novel “The Idiot”. The idiot is a man of his own ways, a weirdo, an oddity. The idiot is not a public person; his field of expression is the private, the personal, his own. In ancient Greek the word idiot (ιδιώτης) has the following meanings: 1. Private person, individual citizen; pl. – people; 2. Common man, plebeian; 3. Uneducated, simple-minded, unversed, ignorant man. Ιδιώτης is the antonym of πολίτης – a citizen, someone with civil rights, a fellow-citizen, a fellow-countryman. The semantic nucleus of the word “idiot” offers important clues for understanding today’s man in Web 2.0.

The Society of Idiots Anonymous

YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and the like, are broadly advertised as media of civic participation. Indeed, we do participate. Not as citizens, rather as idiots. In the ancient Greek meaning of the word. We participate as private persons, as people interested primarily in themselves. We participate as plebeians who enjoy bread and circuses. We participate as laymen, as ignorant men who find their way around the new media by the trial-and-error method. We are not citizens, because being a citizen implies being a fellow-citizen, living in a community. There are no fellow-idiots. We are all idiots in our own ways. In Web 2.0 we are simply idiots together.

We could compare our being together on the Internet to the case of collective masturbation in London, analyzed by Slavoj Žižek (Žižek 2008: 26-27). The happening brought together a group of individuals who were willing to share the egotism of their own pleasure with the others. The controversy, however, Žižek claims, is alleged rather than an actual one. There is a close connection between narcissism and joining the multitude. The individual’s isolation, just like the mingling with the crowd, rules out intersubjectivity proper, the encounter with the Other. Isn’t this the very same thing we observe on the Internet – so many people, wrapped up in their emotions, in the narcissistic pleasure of contemplating themselves, and yet absolutely incapable of opening their eyes to the Other, to his or her viewpoint and opinion. It is not accidental that in ancient Greek the word “idiot” in plural means people, crowd. Idiots, when in big numbers, make a crowd. Citizens, when in big numbers, make a civil society. Citizens share a common cause. Idiots share a common emotion, which goes up in flames (Ditchev 2009a) only to die out afterwards in the placid apathy of atomization.

What video websites still lack is precisely the feeling of a community. Burgess and Green found that regardless of the company’s rhetoric, YouTube’s interface does not facilitate community building in any way (Burgess & Green 2009). The homepage of YouTube directs the attention not so much to the users’ profiles but rather to the variety of video clips uploaded. It is rather symptomatic that in the earlier stages of the website’s operation, the users often had to look for other online platforms to compensate for the lack of communication channels in YouTube (ibid.: 65). The “You” in YouTube is not the plural “you”, but “you” in singular. You – the isolated individual. You – the private person. You – the layman. “You” – the person-medium. The person who takes part in the game all by him- or herself.

Home politics

Idiocy as an invasion of the private in the public field is the trademark of tabloid culture. As Nikoleta Daskalova (2010) points out, the emphasis upon the persona is inherent to the tabloid. “Celebrities and nobodies, showbiz, sports and media stars, figures from the criminal world and from the world of politics – the tabloid protagonists co-exist in a colorful collage of personal drama and stories.” The cult of the personal, the intimate, the private, characterizes the media landscape. Politics is no longer a rational debate, discussing agendas and visions for the future. Politics is a reality show in which the personal life of the politicians falls in the spotlight. “The result is a familiarization of the political, which is a contradictio in adiecto in itself, in as much as the political implies emancipation from the family for the sake of the polis” (Gospodinov 2009). In Vbox7 and YouTube the political is being familiarized. This type of media creates a feeling of familiarity with the politicians, but it actually puts us in the role of the “leech” that is always around, hobnobbing with the big shots, and still never gets to be invited. The unknown Aunt Ellie from Entrance B devotes the song “Wow, shoulder, shoulder” to Boyko Borissov, the pop folk divas Extra Nina and Nicol wish for making a triple coalition with the prime minister, whereas the rapper Nagona urges him: “Brother Boyko, go bang them, cos’ they are much more fun when naked”. Does this mean participating in politics and asserting one’s civic position? Hardly so. The video clips showing acts of violence by policemen against the protesters in January 2009 are often brought up as an example of vigilant civic conscience, but their number and the number of views they have are disparagingly small in comparison to pop folk singer Dessislava’s video “One day” or the video “Oops, surprise”. As of August 2010, the most popular video clip under the category “Politics” in Vbox7 is the song “Colleague” by Upsurt. Love goes through the stomach. Politics goes through the absurd and through Upsurt, thus making it easier to digest.

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Politicians themselves appear as private persons in their media representations. Stanishev rents a flat, Boyko gave a good spanking to his daughter’s boyfriend, Which are Boyko’s favorite foods – these were some of the most popular video clips featuring politicians in Vbox7 in 2009. The boundary between oikos and politia is getting blurred. The television is entering the homes of the politicians, and they are entering our homes through all sorts of shows (Rone 2009). This shortens the distance. The camera is entering the home, opening the doors, sweeping over to the bodies. The dialogue between me and you gives way to the gossip, in which I am talking about you, but never in your presence. Talking face-to-face on the square gives way to talking from link to link in the online forums, talking through Facebook and YouTube walls. Instead of asking the politicians questions, we are posting comments to video clips. More than ever before, those who rule Bulgaria are one of us. Neither in terms of quality of life, nor in terms of equality before the law, however. On the contrary, in this respect they are untouchable as never before. The shortening of the distance is taking place in the field of the personal. Politicians are one of us because they, too, love, have accidents, go to the beach… Pericles once said that a woman’s greatest virtue was not to be talked about. The reputation of the woman as a keeper of the home should be untarnished by gossip. Today’s politicians, worldwide, are like flirtatious women whose homes become the talk of the town. Paradoxically, it is this talk that brings them the big success. Politics is gradually fitting in the culture of idiocy.

The aesthetics of idiocy

“The present age is an age of publicity, the age of miscellaneous announcements: nothing happens but still there is instant publicity” (Kierkegaard 1978: 70). More than a century ago, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard shared this observation about the age he lived in. Kierkegaard lived in a time when the newspapers acquired a growing popularity and influence over the society. He defines his age as devoid of passion, flaring up in flashes of enthusiasm, swiftly sinking in apathy and indifference. It is an age of perpetual hustling and bustling that brings no real change. A century later, similar feelings of nostalgia for reality are expressed in the contemplations of Baudrillard who speaks of the transition from signs which dissimulate something to signs which dissimulate that there is nothing. Disneyland, in Baudrillard’s view, is there to hide the fact that the “real” country, all of “real” America, is nothing but a Disneyland. “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it, are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation” (Baudrillard 1994). According to Baudrillard, it is no longer a question of false representation of reality (ideology), but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and of saving the very principle of reality. Both Kierkegaard and Baudrillard lived in times when the media landscape was shifting, when the endless chain of representations put to question what is real and what not. Tens of video clips, downloaded from the traditional media, are circulating on the Internet today, subsequently returning to the same media and becoming breaking news. The very same images are used both online and offline; more and more journalists are hunting for their news stories in Internet. The media keep referencing to each other, losing grip on reality along the way.

The loss of reality has yet another, not less worrisome dimension. In ancient religions only the sacred is real. Only the sacred is endowed with a Being. Even the most common everyday activities, such as nutritional or erotic activities, become “a rite which will assist man to approach reality, to, as it were, wedge himself into Being, by setting himself free from merely automatic actions (without sense or meaning), from change, from the profane, from nothingness” (Eliade 1996: 32). Reality is no longer a characteristic of the sacred today. The real has become a reality show. The tabloid culture holds nothing sacred. Death (the tabloid’s all-time favorite), birth, love – all is profaned. Today’s people-mediums don’t tell sacred stories about the past of the community. On the contrary, the mundane, the habitual, the awfully familiar, is in the center of attention. Profane for the sake of profanity itself. Only this could explain why nearly four million people have watched popping a pimple in a close-up, and why there are so many video clips of people going to the restroom, burping up, and exploring the particulars of their bodies in the public space of the video websites. Human, all too human. It is telling that the breakthrough of the reality format took place right after the Hollywood writers went out on a strike. Reality shows are “immune from writers”. We don’t need fiction because we have reality at hand – casted away from the paradise of the sacred into the ever-recurring everyday. The profane stories of today’s heroes take the place of the ancestors’ myths and the legends. “Bozhidara Bakalova’s butt worn out, that’s what Emil Koshlukov has been waiting for”. The heroes of the tabloid culture are heroes not by virtue of their exceptionality, quite the opposite. They are heroes by virtue of their universal replaceability. Anyone could trade places with them, and that is their allure.

Private persons and private life topics are the most popular on the Internet. After all, only 32 418 of all the video clips in Vbox7 are political. In comparison, there are 2 140 175 music videos, 632 560 videos under the category “People”, and 504 752 under the category “Show” (as of August 30th, 2010). The most watched video clip of all times “Laughing your head off” is a compilation of video footage of people falling off in all kinds of ludicrous ways. The aesthetics of idiocy is based on humor à la “Tom and Jerry”: the protagonist steps on a shovel, and the shovel knocks him back in the head. According to Aristotle, “the Ridiculous may be defined as a mistake or deformity not productive of pain or harm to others; the mask, for instance, that excites laughter, is something ugly and distorted without causing pain” (Poetics, Chapter 5, 1449a). In this sense, the present age definitely aspires to be comical. We are witnessing the triumph of the funny and the absurd. “I am gathering dry twigs” is the online hit that logically comes to mind – we keep forwarding it not because we like it but because we are having fun with it; it borders on kitsch and absurdity. Internet is the kingdom of the buffoons, and in its reverse mirror we see our own image. The idiotic is weird and quirky, still completely reproducible in its uniqueness. Here is why there are that many video clips of people falling off, of naked women and cute animals (a sneezing panda, a maliciously purring cat, etc.).

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Online video clips require no preparation in advance, no arrangements, no efforts. What is most important, they don’t take up much time. Contagious clips are rarely longer than a minute. More than 4 minutes spent on watching a video clip is sheer madness. The culture of idiocy is a culture of the superficial. It offers us glitzy and flashy pictures, so that we need not have to think. Idiocy as a technique for diverting attention. The hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder Georgi Gospodinov (2009) writes about is intrinsic not only to the kids and the media. It is a disorder intrinsic to the modern-day person on the whole. While watching a video clip, we are checking our Facebook profile, accidentally coming across friends’ photos but before we could even concentrate on them, we have to check our e-mail (at least 3 times per hour), at the same time listening to music and sending another video clip via Skype. Each of these activities in itself does not take much time but when combined, they take up hours of mental indolence. At the same time, very few of us have an idea how any of these online platforms works, how all this communication is made possible. Web 2.0 is made as if “for dummies”. Everything we need to do is to press buttons and enjoy the pictures. In the meantime our data is being collected and used by Google for targeted advertising.

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“Who wants to be an idiot?”

The triumph of idiocy, of the private taking over the public, is the privatization of the Internet. YouTube (as a subsidiary of Google), Facebook, Skype and the like, are all private companies, under the umbrella of which our communication takes place. We are witnessing the advancing privatization of the public interest and the public causes (Ditchev 2009b). Behind all the rhetoric about online communities, the culture of sharing, etc., the mighty interests of companies going after their due profits are at stake. The fundamental credo of these companies is “Who wants to be a millionaire?”. With a little help from a friend. The friend – that is us.

In the film “The Idiots” (1998) by the Danish director Lars von Trier, a group of friends gather in an up-scale suburb of Copenhagen to carry out an experiment. From time to time they pretend to be idiots, bringing out the “inner idiot” in themselves and disturbing the peace of mind and conscience of the progressive Danish society. Everybody in the group has a different explanation as to what they are doing. For the group leader, the outbursts of idiocy are a form of social protest against the bourgeois ways, for the art history professor it is a chance to rediscover his creative powers, for the advertising agent – an opportunity to break away from the boredom and enjoy an extramarital affair. The problem arises when the boundary between pretending to be an idiot and being one disappears. Eventually it turns out that one of the girls in the group actually has mental problems and should go on pills.

Likewise, we all interpret the invasion of idiocy in Internet in different ways. For some, the funny video clips we send each other are a new form of creativity, for others, they have subversive power, and yet for others – they are just fun. The problem is that it is more and more difficult to draw the line between these video clips and the other, the “serious” culture. Tabloidization is ubiquitous. The ideology of idiocy encompasses politics, its representations, and the ways we live and present our own life. It is not accidental that the word tabloid comes from the Latin word for pill. The tabloids are both the universal cure and the disease of our society as a whole. Maybe it is high time that we stop pretending to be idiots and start pretending to be citizens. Faking it. For a while. Perhaps we’ll get carried away in the game.

Bibliography

Baudrillard, Jean. 1994. Simulacra and Simulations. The Precession of Simulacra (accessed August 26, 2010).

Bernstain, Carl. 1992. The Idiot Culture (accessed August 26, 2010).

Burges, Jean and Joshua Green. 2009. YouTube. Online Video and Participatory Culture. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Ditchev, Ivaylo. 2009a. Stihijata na virtualnite emotsii [The power of virtual emotions]. Seminar_BG (accessed August 26, 2010).

Ditchev, Ivaylo. 2009б. Medijata kato generator na emotsii [The media as a generator of emotions]. Sofia: Media Democracy Foundation (accessed August 26, 2010).

Eliade, Mircea. 1996. Patterns in Comparative Religion. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Gospodinov, Georgi. 2009. Personalii i populjarnost, ili Borisov, Stanishev, Madonna i mediite [Personalities and popularity, or Borisov, Stanishev, Madonna and the media]. Sofia: Media Democracy Foundation (accessed August 26, 2010).

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1978. Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, a Literary Review. Princeton University Press.

Rone, Julia. 2009. The Age of the "Mediums": Information from link to link, and from mouth to mouth. Seminar_BG (accessed March 1, 2011).

Spassov, Orlin. 2009. Obidni izobrazhenija: fotografija i politika [Insulting images: photography and politics]. Sofia: Media Democracy Foundation (accessed August 26, 2010).

Žižek, Slavoj. 2008. Violence. Six Sideways Reflections. London: Profile Books.

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