March 7th, 2005


Self-mediation could end world hunger! (It says here.)

There's a growing rift in my family between the introverts and the extraverts, the performers and the observers, the communicators and the non-communicators. Perhaps I should say between those who readily self-mediate and those who don't. Some of us perform ourselves, and some of us protect ourselves. The performers are a bit like Madonna in Truth or Dare, the Madonna of whom Warren Beatty says "She doesn't want to live off camera. Much less talk. There's nothing to say off camera. Why would you say something if it's off camera? What point is there existing?"

I won't say the rift is between openness and defensiveness, because I've read Liam Hudson's book Contrary Imaginations, which divides English schoolboys into divergers and convergers, and I know it's not as simple as that. Divergers, as Hudson describes them, are arty, florid and fiction-friendly, convergers stolid and forever seeking "the one right answer". Divergers want to be interesting, convergers want to be right. But for Hudson these are "rival systems of defense". Both types want to keep themselves protected. They just use different methods. One type talks a lot of entertaining rot, the other keeps schtumm.

The rift in my family is increased by the fact that the quiet ones have to stay extra quiet around the noisy ones because they're constantly aware that anything they say may be taken down and used in evidence against them on the internet, or published in a book (yes, several of us have written books). This blog entry in itself is evidence of the communicators' treachery. If we find something interesting, we simply can't help talking about it. And not just to a few trusted intimates, but to the world at large. We communicators do have the virtue, you see, of being touchingly non-hierarchical. We need an audience, and anyone will do.

I continue to trot out analyses of Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker's Nathan Barley on this ILE thread. The UK's Channel 4 has now broadcast four of the six episodes of this satire on a Hoxton "self-facilitating media node", a kidult whose main goal in life seems to be to get celebrities to make video endorsements of his website, Trashbat dot cock. I suspect that Morris and Brooker's beef with Barley (though it's mixed with a fair bit of admiration) is rather similar to the beef the reticent members of my family have with the noisy ones. But in order to establish Barley's villainy they've often shown him in a rather flattering light. Sure, he's been insufferable. But he's also been inclusive, proactive and entertaining. His nemesis Dan Ashcroft has emerged looking a lot less positive; like Alceste in Moliere's The Misanthrope, Ashcroft finds that his withering scorn of Hoxton "court life" leads only to grumpy misanthropy.

The problem for Ashcroft is also the problem for Morris and Brooker. How to deal with the Barleys of this world -- incessant self-mediators and self-promoters -- without falling into various traps. There's the trap of "dull denial" -- sour dismissal which makes you look more dull than Barley and establishes no viable alternative to his skillful self-mediation. There's the trap of satire, which puts you on the same page as Barley, matching his inventions with satirical counter-inventions every bit as silly. And there's the trap I call zugzwang (the chess term for the compulsion to move... and lose): giving any attention to an attention-seeker hands him victory. Because, while for you a dandy is just a sub-category of dunce, for him a dunce is just a sub-category of dandy. You believe it's possible to be wrong, but he believes it's only possible to be boring.

Morris and Brooker have edged around these traps by setting Barley's self-mediation against a canvas of global atrocity, as if this contrast in itself condemns him (and not the rest of us). The series (like its web progenitor TVGoHome) constantly references massacres, exploitation and atrocities. References to 9/11 abound. Trashbat, Barley's company, is compared to "a couple falling from the World Trade Center, but they're fucking on the way down". Later, terrorist chic re-appears in an animation showing giant space hoppers demolishing the Twin Towers. Animations on the trashbat site reference Vietnam, Barley mimics Hitler, and Ashcroft decries the Sugarape staff's amusement at "that cool e mail of a woman being bummed by a wolf..." (He himself works for a magazine which has shortened its name to Rape, though, and soon we see him winning money on the atrociously cruel online game "Russian Tramp Races", which develops into a bloody tooth pulling contest.)

I thought of this "moral engineering" today while reading an interview in Salon magazine with Thomas De Zengotita about his book Mediated: The Hidden Effects of Media on People, Places, and Things. Rather admirably, Zengotita pulls back from condemning the fakeness and superficiality of mediated post-modern personalities. Sure we're fake, he says, but that in itself isn't a problem. Self-mediation is here to stay, and we should get used to it. In Zengotita's analysis, we're all well on the way to being "self-facilitating media nodes". He could be describing Nathan Barley when he says:

"Everyone's an artist, or a DJ, or something. Wonderful, isn't it? And who's to say what's better art? I like this, you like that, whatever. Isn't this mostly a good thing?... What's the problem?"

But then Zengotita zooms the spotlight out to the very "backdrop of atrocity" that Morris and Brooker use to condemn Barley. He draws a much more benign conclusion, though. Instead of using atrocity and world poverty to declare the ludic Barley a fake and a cunt, he finds the seeds of a solution to world poverty in the luxury available to Barley and his ilk:

"I don't care about us. What really matters is all those people out there dying while we're playing video games and our culture is ignoring them, usually. There's a feeling that mediation is perpetuating the grave injustices in the world. I don't think that has to be the case at all. In principle, I see no reason why it couldn't become enormously fashionable for a whole generation of Western Europeans and Americans to suddenly do something about world poverty. You don't have to do that much to make a serious dent in it. That seems to me to be a conceivable thing to happen, even without finding some authentic way to exist first. You can continue to struggle with the authenticity of your options and performances and still be of concrete assistance."

Interviewer: To me, that's a bit like accepting the artificiality of a role and doing it anyway.

"That might well be a good way to go. I'm a phony and I love it!"

I hardly need to point out that "I'm a phony and I love it" is pretty central to my recent work as Momus. It also seems to me to be the positive side of what America has to offer the world. Interviewed by Index magazine back when I was still living in New York (and before the first Bush election victory, 9/11, and the rest of it), I made a connection between the playfully synthetic and America:

"MOMUS: Here the national mind-set is totally synthetic, and everybody knows it. The American Dream is a thing you plug into when you get here, a common property for all of humanity.
STEVE LAFRENIERE: So, does the "fake folk" idea of your new songs relate to this?
MOMUS: I think fakeness is a democratic value. If you can only be a real folk musician if you have certificates to prove you're poor, or badly educated, or mentally retarded, or slim, fat, or blind, that's an inverted snobbery. Whereas fakeness is a core American value. Here you can be a Jewish folk singer, or a Ukrainian Baptist from Alabama, or any combination of identities — which makes them essentially plastic. A lot of Europeans are terrified of that. I think it's great."

In a recent e mail to a European who also happens to be a member of my family -- a mail written before I'd heard of Zengotita or his mediation book -- I was still banging essentially the same drum (without singing Yankee Doodle Dandy over the top):

"How about if we said that communication is a fiction, rather than a lie? And that it's a creative pleasure to negotiate intimacy by means of a continuously self-edited self-mediation? Is that so terrible? Do we abandon that process just because of some slippery puritan notion of "the truth"?"

In my efforts to whitewash the self-mediators, I don't go as far as Zengotita. I don't say that self-mediation could end world hunger. But, hell, you never know... it seems to work for Bono.