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Hyperrealities of Incompetence: Rethinking Social Media Satire as Resistance

By Jennifer Seaman Cook.

The Atomic Cafe in Little Tokyo by Nancy Sekizawa

I recently screened The Atomic Café with my U.S. In The World class with not a little sense of irony, given the recent arc of geopolitical and nationalist residue from WWII, the Cold War, and the fearful prospect of rampaging hypermasculinity holding the keys to the nuclear fallout of… domestic democracy at least. For those unfamiliar with it, this cutting satire documentary from 1982 is composed completely of found-footage, much of it military film that, as Bob Mielke points out, was recently declassified before the film was made as an incisive, explosively identifying response to Reagan’s arms race escalations at the time. Eighteen years after Dr. Strangelove, Mielke claims the documentary shows how terrifyingly close the facts of cold, American instrumentalism of people’s lives and “technoporn” creative destruction came to Kubrick’s dark humor fiction.

One of the reasons satire is useful is that it makes and maintains these cuts between reality and fiction. Through its absurd juxtaposition of war rhetorics on greatness, benevolence, progress, and peace with horrific reveals of classified atomic realities (and 4th wall moments of active propaganda media construction), the sometimes heavy-handed editing of The Atomic Café provided some lines in the running sand we can point to. It’s a cutting technique taken out of the Dada anti-war tradition, where the new collage art coming out of parasitizations of cheap print culture, then slashed and juxtaposed, pointed to Total War absurdies at the hands of honor, nationalism, and the ruling, respectable bourgeoisie. This Dada collage ethos continued for decades, the power of clear social cuts still made visible as the movement’s artists were notoriously persecuted in Hitler’s rapid takeover of Germany. Dada even came back to help David Bowie make what appears to be a jarring visual Talking Head critique between men and media and world-selling in his 1979 Saturday Night Live performance with artist Klaus Nomi.

From Max Ernst’s collage novel Rêve d’une Petite Fille qui voulut entrer au Carmel, 1930.

Yet this tradition of disruptive socio-political collage (from 1930 by Max Ernst) looks just like a Trader Joe’s ad now, doesn’t it? The once revolutionary—the art of anti-fascist communists no less- brand of humor transported to now somehow illustrates the bleeding of countercultural politics, a demarcation appropriated by consumer capitalism, mass-inked onto packaging to entice us to buy clever, subversive identities though our lifestyle choices. The transaction only gets cheaper on a political feed. When Surrealism’s movement seamed with the unconscious and desire, we were no longer shown the Dadaist cuts made in its construction. Ernst’s art here represents a moment where the two genres start to bleed. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that social satire media is totally dead, I’m just saying it is Pumpkin Spice now, and we should be careful of indulging in too much of an ubiquity. What if dystopia comes, afterall, in a sweet little box of ridicule, how much we consume what’s being sold back to us so easily?

2017 is the year (I’ve decided) that social media hit peak Dada art. The inauguration of the new American president and immediate digital proliferation of administration censorship, propaganda, and massive blunders brought us both satire #altgov accounts and real, journalist validated ones spouting streams of sarcasm and irony. Even respectable outlets got in on the Dada game. The Nixon Library’s suspected subtweet of the Saturday Massacre purges and similar OTD anniversary comments on Dr. Strangelove by the Smithsonian American History Museum showed that sometimes, in Dadaist collage 2.0, opposition is created just by the selective juxtaposition of a fact with the climate of unreal news cascading down your Twitter feed. In my own world of vulnerability I’m not a huge fan of earnestness, but the question wells up: what does this change, if anything?

Admittedly, the American unreality is dizzying: a seeming endless barrage of incredulously unconstitutional leaks, official statements of Orwellian media denial, dimension-ripping institutional obfuscation, and high-level, anti-meritocracy stupidity. Social media humor in the face of such maddening horror can be resilient, instructive– transcendent even: building networks and like community. Good things can be said to come out of satire when Harvard builds a resistant “Bowling Green Massacre” pop-up bookstore gallery, or when the ridicule of gross official ignorance during Black History Month results in a renewed interest in the white nationalism of American history, 308 people retweeting—and more seeing—a real-life public monument of insistence to the record of Frederick Douglass at Maryland’s iSchool. Even when that rush of satirical tweetstorm diffuses, the cutting context remains in invitations to build something new: earnest calls borne from ironic resentment of the status quo to learn a lesson or two for once from the oppressed communities who have been trying to tell you all along, or an opportunity to join a Douglass-themed Transcribe-a-Thon at Brown University (Is it any wonder why they come also for the universities?).

In 1942, the art and technology critic Siegfried Kracauer noted in Propaganda and the Nazi War Film how under fascism “reality was put to work faking itself”. As 2017 fear piles up in the face of reports of policy incompetence, the threats of a considerable slice of the nation duped or doped up on someone possibly unfit to lead, or posted clips of ridiculous hearing statements from unqualified cabinet picks, it’s tempting to see why we’re compulsively using social media to call out the Hacks. Kracauer long ago pointed out how propaganda appeals to instrumentalism can fake us on justification, but what about all of this means of absurdity? What if Kracauer is only half-right now? What if the sand in electronic communications has blurred the line? Maybe, we need to consider, we can fake ourselves just as easily. The recent specter of “not me but you” fake news and electoral damage has been melting away into a reconsideration of the socio-political isolation possible on all sides by information media bubbles . It’s about time we had a good self-talk about our own mirrors of hyperreality.

Political memorabilia by artist Brian Campbell (Caption: Did this kind of critique (un)do anything?)

As Bush reminded us of a great American proverb:

“It’s like the famous saying: fool me once shame on you, fool me twice… umm… foo…uh… a fooled man duddin’t get fooled again!”

Anyway, it was something like that (to get meta with my argument, I don’t want to waste my activist writing time nitpicking the detailed wording of the interview transcript). The point is, I’m resurrecting the theme of Dumbo and the pervasive Bushism to remind us that we can actually fake ourselves out on the solipsism of pointing out others’ incompetence, even as hundreds of thousands die in a War on Terror. Bad things happened while we wanted a circled stupidity. Eventually, the connectivity weakness of insularity even gets into the materiality of the platform, for if Twitter use is curating a digital archive, it’s also a bottomless, timewasting box of postdetritus (pun intended) without a decent finding aid. No doubt people besides me often can’t remember who in the global sediment they liked or retweeted in order to follow up with. Sometimes, it’s the desire to personally validate a never-satisfied public identity that social media’s surreal connectivity is appealing to (Big Brother, do you see you?). After all, an alarmingly large minority did just elect a mere image of self-made, sexist, racist omnipotence projected from reality tv, perhaps even seeing what they —democracy aside—could be.

In his essays in Travels in Hyperreality, Umberto Eco explored the term as a truth we desire and then consume, a substitution of ‘fake’ reality for the real. I want to note that this was a hard-earned cultural awareness that Eco came out with after spending a portion of his writerly youth seemingly drinking the Mussolini Kool aid. This is the same man who in later years identified “Ur-Fascism” but once uncritically repeated the characterization of James Joyce’s modernist literature as part of a Jewish International conspiracy, one aligning economic and cultural globalization at the detriment of the precious (ideally Italianate) national particularities.

An image from Eco’s Inventing the Enemy that I tweeted on #HolocaustMemorialDay

This anti-globalist rhetoric sounds familiar, and we should take Eco’s conversion seriously. For if we may not consider ourselves as susceptible to the same type of superiority propaganda of a Mussolini or Hitler today, we certainly may be susceptible in our Liberal-to-Left haughtiness towards its current self-effacements of flabbergasting, unbelievable idiocy.

Exploring Baudrillard and hyperreality, literary theorist Takayuki Tatsumi describes the late 20th century upgrade of propaganda to metafiction with Saddam Hussein, the way “political appropriation and reappropriation of electronic media during the Gulf War period” provided entertaining self-effacement and prolonged the war narrative like a “postmodern Scheherazade”. Anyone considering Trump’s pre-emptive, pre-election extending of his bid for power by predicting any electoral loss would be the result of rigging—or the effects of the last minute drop of a hazy FBI email investigation for that matter– can see what kind of metafictional media territory we are getting into. Even more troubling is the anti-corporatist shift in public opinion–due to real neoliberal abuses–that Trump appeals to, and may use through participatory 2.0 media to fracture strong support of a free press.

Dentist holding photograph of Saddam, from Jamal Penjwey’s series Saddam is Here.
(Saddam’s capture and strategically humiliating end showed how the word Terror itself has become another Scheherazade)

More succinctly paraphrasing Tatsumi, metafiction doesn’t replace reality, but reality and metafiction influence each other, like grains mixing in the same postmodern hourglass. “The more our society goes high-tech”, warns Tatsumi, the more “cybernetic culture” and metafiction entwine due to “self-referentiality.” I’m taking liberties with that here to consider the implications of authoring digital, cerebral satire that becomes detached from a purpose in the social body. Media making has potential, but even making is not always empathetic, educated, civic-minded or critical. Sometimes it’s solipsistic, cool individualism, something that hasn’t changed at all since modernism.

To be an individual in conformist times can arguably be political. Still, one can wonder whether the redirection to technologically platformed, neoliberal self-entrepreneurialism tips that kind of artistry too far away from the balance of a grounded community. Even the nihilist Punks needed somebody. Between platform and content, is there a politics of sociality we can build and also lean on a little? But now we are getting beached onto McLuhanesque debates of content versus medium. Perhaps, like the Cold War, cold media passivity and hot interactivity has a more complicated internarrativity. Like Korea, or school air raid drills, or American atomic experiments on humans, or McCarthyism. Hell, even when Congress never actually declared it, the photographs coming out of Vietnam were reposted by a decidedly Anti-War movement. Meanwhile, how many people sat and watched the 1972 mass broadcast of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, thinking it was just going to be about art, never again looking at the gaps between social relations and visual things the same way? How’s that for a spreadable media double-consciousness?

“And babies” 1969 Art Workers Coalition poster collaging photojournalism and soldier interview from the Mai Lai Massacre.

Yes, the pathetic typos and Trumpist language seeded within White House statements are tempting to cut apart, highlight, tweet, sneer at. I get it. These are major, conscious gaps in what our representative American government should be. We should also be conscious, however, in our knee-jerk reactions to incompetence– in how, for example, the clown car irony of cabinet picks also self-fulfills the need to privatize ‘ineffective’ government. We are drinking the ‘stupid story’ when we aren’t also marking the line of that cruel calculation with our satire. The endlessness of this postmodern Scheherazade of mediatized incompetence runs the risk of our hyperreal overindulgence, one where we severely underestimate the power for horrors hiding behind the latest Easy D(umb) and dangerously headed our way. The result of this faking ourselves is almost cliché: an all too real reality where we have built no serious identification between the self-reflexive media bubbles and stronger, networked communities (Then they came for immigrants, and I gathered snarky Tweets…). That is to say, satire still means something, but put those spicy variations of the orange idiot joke away, please.

Do not be seduced.

References

Mielke, Bal. Rhetoric and Ideology in the Nuclear Test Documentary. Bob Mielke. FILM QUART, Vol. 58 No. 3, Spring 2005; (pp. 28-37).

Niebisch, Arndt. Media Parasites in the Early Avant-Garde: On the Abuse of Technology and Communication. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2012

Durbin, Andrew covers the relevant 1979 broadcast of Saturday Night Live in which Bowie performs The Man Who Sold the World with his body in an immobile, fiberglass Dada suit in: “Klaus Nomi 30 Years Later” visualaid.org blog August 28, 2013 DOA https://www.visualaids.org/blog/detail/klaus-nomi-30-years-later

Gurevitch, Michael, et. Al. “Political Communication—Old and New Media Relationships” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 625,
(Sep., 2009), pp. 164-181

Tatsumi, Takayuki. Full Metal Apache: Transactions Between Cyberpunk japan and Avant-Pop America. Duke, 2006.

Jenkins, Henry et. Al. Spreadable media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. NYU Press, 2013.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer Seaman Cook’s (@Histouroborus) cultural political scholarship in the arts, media, and visual and public cultures is augmented by her intermedial practices in poetry, essay, and documentary. Her most recent essays can be found in Salon, PopMatters, and Heide Hatry’s photography book Not a Rose. Jennifer’s poetry and hybrid work has been published in Cedilla Literary Journal (archived at University of Montana), Lunch Ticket, Queen Mob’s Tea House and more. Jennifer teaches American Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo. 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, February 16th, 2017.