text /// Chris Rusak

Out of Wildrose Canyon, Death Valley National Park

Out of Wildrose Canyon, Death Valley National Park by Chris Rusak
Out of Wildrose Canyon, Death Valley National Park
September 2015

Why do people lose their minds over Facebook?

Making the rounds today is a Guardian article on journalist Laurie Penny’s banishment from Facebook for using a pseudonym; Facebook mandates users playing within their concentration camp do so only while displaying their “real name.” This should tip off the masses that Facebook is foundationally, greatly interested in your identity, not your participation or your content. But, we need to ask, as Facebook’s real name policy has been steadily inspiring outcry for months now, why do the people who claim they need a synonymous Internet presence also seem to be outraged at their banishment as if they have a natural right to use Facebook? There is much to parse here.

Facebook claims its “‘real name culture’ creates more accountability,” which is a corporate culture’s attempt at branding their product as safe. Safety, especially in the post-9/11 world, holds Most Favored Possession status in the capitalist socioeconomic commodity hierarchy. Consumers want products, but only if they are safe. Cars, swing sets, plastic bottles, pharmaceuticals — the moment products indicate they are or have become known to be unsafe, become hard-to-sell and are recalled. Parents especially hate unsafe products; when celebrities counter-endorse products as unsafe — say, vaccines — suddenly consumption wanes. Studies show that introducing brand name goods to children at young ages fosters loyalty to those products. Even Major League Baseball knows this. In her essay, “Understanding Loyalty and Motivation of Professional Sports Fans,” Victoria Wilkins underscores why corporations need little consumers’ attention: “Appeal to children. A true bond that lasts a lifetime starts in youth. A child will become a fan of a team … and will retain fandom throughout his or her lifetime.” Team Facebook, aware of the digital future children face, having bought out the futures of Teams Friendster, Myspace, and Google+, knows it must advertise a safe digital playing field if it wants to convince parents to allow their children to sign up.



The claim that real names will create a safer Internet experience is specious at best, distraction. The claim certainly serves its theatrical purposes inasmuch as the Transportation Safety Administration purports to create a safer travel experience, despite what the masses experience and know.

And despite what Facebook claims about its purpose — “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” — it is a publicly traded, billion-dollar corporation, operating to make a profit. Facebook is a mall, selling its visitors’ presence to advertisers and selling its visitors’ actions as the content-product that visitors come to consume. The whole operation is also one of surveillance, in that every action within the mall is seen and recorded. This is why Facebook wants children in their mall, to accurately learn and record what other loyalties these new consumers are psychologically forming at each milestone of their youth.

Unlike traditional shopping malls, however, Facebook demands you identify yourself, with your real identity, before entry, just like the TSA. Facebook, to this effect, is a private, privileged space. Yet, the TSA doesn’t want to know your real name, the TSA — and Facebook — both want to know your legal name. There is a difference. Drag queens know this. Chinese academics know this. Everyone reading this knows that who you really are is more akin to the words that your lover calls you than the ones the Internal Revenue Service does. Just like government administration, Facebook wants to keep its accounting records organized by single legal identities. It wants to account for historical facts. But, unlike the IRS, it seeks to retain an inescapable lifetime accounting of actual persons’ expressions and interactions.

I’ll take the IRS instead any day.

Can you imagine driving up to a dank gas station, late at night, and the greasy cashier who has been staring you down the aisles refuses to sell you $10 worth of gas and a bottle of water, paying cash, unless you show some state ID?

“We prefer to thank you by your real name instead of calling you ‘ma’am.’ Sorry, just store policy.”

Has the Internet become so desperate that Facebook is the last gas station, late at night, on the information superhighway? Do you really need to piss beside everyone else congregating in its ripe restroom?




If you are someone who claims to be oppressed, to be “at risk ‘of rape and death threats,'” if you need anonymity while communicating with your associates, and there are well-lit, locking-door pissholes across the street, that care not whether your real name is Mark Zuckerberg or RuPaul, why are you getting mad at the gas station for being so dank?

Would you send your child in to pay instead?

“Pick up mommy some cherry vape, too, sweetie. I love you!”

If the government banishes the public free-speech right to call yourself or anyone by a real name, a truer description of the person we embody, and rather mandate self-representation solely by the words scribed on a State’s legal document, the uproar would be furious. Hopefully people would loathe the loss of a civil right. The question of the State’s motive would surely publicly arise.

It seems foolish for any public business to demand one’s legal identity in order to consume its advertised free products, but the sign stating so is on the door. Don’t like it?

And yet, the vociferous complaints in the media describe users’ defensive opposition to Facebook’s real name policy and not to its larger purported motives.

Which makes me wonder: Given the growing evidence that social media corporations are less about connecting people and more about creating data-surveillance profits, and given Facebook’s especially egregious, known efforts at such, why are the ejected oppressed users so hellbent on getting back into the concentration camp from which they’ve just been thrown out? I’m not trying to purport these oppressed users are victimizing themselves; I am instead alarmed that there is something so perniciously attractive and appealing about Facebook that its corporately bullied users do keep trying to go back behind the bully’s fences, and worse, believe they should attack the fences.

Why would you purchase the pleasure products of an oppressive business?

Why do you want to hide your identity and earnestly use a platform whose whole business model is recording history so they can perpetually identify you?

Is there no alternative venue?

Internet Distraction and The New Sight of Terror

The concept of terrorism, the language of terrorism, and the spectacle of terrorism all repeatedly graze across contemporary senses, the buzzword’s conceits fueling a whirling international discourse wrestling between freedom and safety, a self-preservative echoey cacophony itself the anthracite off which media industries’ smokestacks puff. More than a decade after that fateful September day, its mourning television broadcasts scorched onto memories like the conflagration that it was — plasma hot, irretrievable, terminal — that ante meridiem commentary of news anchors reverberates today for anyone who watched the destruction occur in the confines of their home theater. It took only forty-five seconds after Good Morning America had returned from a commercial break and Diane Sawyer had informed viewers of “some sort of explosion at the World Trade Center” before her co-anchor Charlie Gibson used the word “terrorists” in reference to the 1993 bombings at the site. An encircling helicopter transmitted real-time video of rising smoke while Gibson’s commentary stressed that facts about its cause were scant. Eleven minutes and forty-five seconds later, terrorists flew a second catastrophic plane straight into the live shot. Gibson, unnaturally calm even for the strictest of journalists and speaking over an audible background audience of a painfully thunderstruck production staff, immediately assessed the moment as evidently a “concerted effort to attack” the building. In fact, the whole viewing public had just been indelibly attacked. Months later, in his subsequent 2002 State of the Union address, his first, broadcast live as is national tradition, President George W. Bush officially ruminated on the event. “[F]ellow citizens,” Bush asserts in his opening, “as we gather tonight, our nation is at war, our economy is in recession, and the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers [raising his voice and gesticulating] yet the state of our nation has never been stronger.” Bush’s thumping fist-to-lectern assertion received twenty-five seconds of amenable applause. The Commander-in-chief later foresees and foretells the American future: “our war against terror is only beginning,” he says, despite the fact that warring against terror has always been a regular feature of not only American history, but humanity in general [1]. Reporting the next day, David E. Sanger of the New York Times emulated well what radio listeners and television viewers had heard and their minds surely captured: Sanger’s report uses variants of the word “terror” fifteen times, once in its headline and in eleven of its forty-five paragraphs, accurately echoing the President’s own broken-record monologue. Though the words “war against terror” might have sounded like a resolute promise to manufacture a nation’s economic recovery and to secure a homeland’s freedoms, the phrase instead resounds today like a smokescreen, a puffy clarion call for the masses to stay tuned after the following commercial messages. Thereafter and still, the language of terrorism loudly infects mass media, acting, especially for the generation who witnessed 9/11, not just as an audible touchstone of loss and fear, but more exploitatively as a strategic trigger for distractive transfixion.

In a war against a nebulous concept the actual enemy can never be in sight. Thus, the necessitation of warring and the concept of terrorism must be commodified, generally by states or private organizations. The war on terror has been accordingly staged on multiple battlefields, in the American mind, on foreign soils, against foreign soul, and now inside an international consciousness digitally interconnected by live 24-hour broadcasts on digital television and the Internet. This war’s executive producers cast the personalities of various combatants to personify or iconize an opposition, relying on a perpetual conflation of events, not necessarily worldly, nor international, nor tragic, to the terror concept. Summarizing America’s experience with this concept in The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to Al Qaeda, Arnaud Blin of the French Institute for Strategic Analysis notes that in the immediacy after the Twin Towers fell, the Bush administration inculpated Iraq, and by association Saddam Hussein, “even though nothing suggested that country was involved in this act of terrorism” [2]. Gibson’s similarly brisk on-air appraisal connected his aforementioned nod to the 1993 “terrorists” and his therewith designation as an “attack”; however, Bush’s brisk appraisal obviated hard evidence and instead theatrically connected it to an icon already vilified as a terrorist. Both men capitalized on lingually provoked emotional tension in order to reify it in service to the production of their goods: the former, commitment to a forthcoming newscast; the latter, assent to forthcoming policy. Since terror is a social resource mined from human emotion, used historically as a “tool of enslavement and guarantor of mass obedience,” the nebulousness of a war against its creation can fizz away once an antagonist is placed on stage, in a spotlight, holding a weapon; yet, this personification and iconization of terror simultaneously creates objects for its loci, operatively transacted throughout mass media, thereby perpetuating it within the human community [3]. Plainly, a war framed against terror necessarily births the supposed enemy it claims to battle.

One grander problem with warring and terrorism in the Internet age is the rapid sleight of hand with which symbolic weapons are issued and by which humanity’s more pernicious enemies can be obscured. This phenomenon, certainly nothing new, rather now primarily occurs on a technologically refined, composite iteration of mass media’s ancestral modes of dissemination — newspaper, radio, film, and television — coupled onto the telecommunication industry. As the invention of the telegraph led to both primitive analog and wireless telecommunication networks, enabling the postwar entertainment technology complex, the introduction of home computers, unrelenting refinement of their scalability, and the subsequent boom of microprocessor chips correspondingly gave rise to today’s expansive digital Internet, a remarkable always-on network sustaining convenient handheld and portable electronics. The early edition paper, the walkie-talkie, the cinema reel, and the boob tube, and more importantly their industries, have, sometimes unwillingly, become one. News headlines, horror movies, and soap operas illuminate the same transmissive juncture as phone calls, emails, and text messages. This endoparasitic subsumption of journalism, entertainment, and telephony essentially consolidates them into one phenomenal entity. The ultimate result is a significant expansion of what philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno describe as the culture industry. The two assert in their seminal Dialectic of Enlightenment that the culture industry — today amalgamated as the Internet — distractingly exploits consumer attention by stoking desire through its promises of amusement, leisure, and social interaction, an excellently reliable set of diversionary activities [4]. For-profit social media corporations like Facebook and Twitter demonstrate the symbiosis and expeditious dissemination of amusement content, leisure opportunities, and ostensible sociability that Internet technology enables. Consequential “heightened competition” between such agents of the culture industry competing for consumers’ attention fosters media spectacle, or “technologically mediated events, in which media forms … process events in spectacular ways,” a phenomenon particularly exemplified by the Internet community’s transfixion during recent catastrophic natural disasters and riots protesting police brutality. Moreover, the political stump now resembles a variety show. Media-framed political spectacles, evoking Gong Show farce with their mugging for extremists to provoke audience reactions, hope for a responsive outcry throughout the Internet, thirsty for virality — the precious commodity of mass-transfixed attention — which cares not whether it scores a ten for effort or is gonged for idiocy, but cares only that it has been seen, heard, and discussed. To consumers, whose attention once oscillated between media formats or at least benefited from those clear section headings or commercial breaks set between news and nonsense, who relied on those news anchors or emcees speaking between reports and soap opera acts, now, in a world of endless breaking news and scripted-reality TV, the divisions between veracity and invention are distinctly unclear. The systemic sameness Horkheimer and Adorno alarmingly underscore throughout their dialectic has ballooned; the Internet’s ubiquitous infinite scroll acts like a perpetual paragraph without end, creatively blurring the edges of each original subject and always promising the next point for attention, ultimately delivering this same mode of distraction over and over again [5].

And this incessancy has a purpose.

For those who choose, portable electronic devices can persistently update their owner with personalized digital events and curated headlines — the push notification — constant audible, haptic, and flashing visual pulls of consumers’ attention back toward the illuminated digital stream of consciousness. While Horkheimer and Adorno lamented advertising’s devouring of the “landscape … a mere background for signboards and symbols,” push notifications effortlessly beckon to onlookers in real space, drawing their consciousness back to a new landscape equally slathered with promoted consumerism, back to more reflexive, recursive distraction [6]. The viability of this new landscape, too, depends on its users’ incessant participation. Disconcertingly and dangerously, the new monoliths of the culture industry meticulously control their channels of dissemination, thus mediating their users’ interaction with information at-large and effecting societal shifts of consciousness. The inevitable result is a mode of digitally negotiated human interaction operable as an immediate, worldwide megaphone that broadcasts knee-jerk or exacted premeditated communications, thrusting the actors, agents, and scenes of today’s spectacular events into the visual foreground while enabling event producers to step off into the shadows.

This light-speed, yet mediated interaction of the Internet fuels more than desire, the amusingly fantastical, and the questionably true. In one of Adorno’s later essays, “Culture industry reconsidered,” he displays prescient pings about the Internet age in his explication of what the culture industry exactly was at the time. Writing when film was still “the central sector of the culture industry,” Adorno notes how “the expression ‘industry’ is not to be taken too literally. It refers to the standardization of the thing itself … and to the rationalization of distribution techniques, but not strictly to the production process” [7]. This claim warrants correlative transposition to the present day.

Previously, a film-centric culture industry relied on the “extensive division of labor” to create its salable product — a “star system” of actors to iconize each film thoroughly assembled by “industrial forms of organization” which, unlike autonomous artists crafting their artwork through most of its fruition, disunites the film’s technical components, distributes these to its factory-like groups of disparate workers, who then manufacture its elements through mechanical means and later assemble an actual filmic thing [8]. But, as Adorno emphasizes, the filmic thing is merely the base commodity around which culture circulates, and this industrialized circulation wields the most influence against the societal subjectivity it encircles. The phenomenon of amusement instead “becomes an ideal,” and so while the filmic thing itself not only amuses, its numerous ancillary modes — the trailers, the teasers, the press releases, the movie posters, the star scandals, talk show appearances, the troubled production, the tabloid machine, and plethoric red-carpet fêting — measure out steady morsels of amusement to incessantly stoke consumer chatter and, hopefully, sell a ticket to the exhibition [9]. Journalistic news and highbrow criticism complement this cycle, too. This total labor force of yesteryear’s culture industry did far more than filmic manufacturing. In fact, its heavily controlled star system deliberately sought to negotiate consumer attention between film and then-nascent television by manipulating press to modulate celebrities’ images, which consequentially modulated consumers’ relationship to celebrities, which ultimately modulated consumers’ relationships to themselves [10]. Horkheimer and Adorno saw this as manipulating the “identity of a species” by depreciating individuality, or the encouraging of homogeny [11]. Or, the emergence of persons and things but only through sameness.

Today’s culture industry operates equivalently, perhaps more deceptively. Hollywood-like vertical integration persists and grows: conglomerates like Comcast and AT&T control not only the similarly organized production and distribution of media, but also the physical electronic networks over which consumers receive that content. Profit-hungry Internet companies vehemently attempt to strangle that distribution network, reusing a tactic of early film studios, who asphyxiated independent movie theaters in metropolitan markets by restricting their access to high-quality, high-demand content, then aggressively acquired them as they failed. Recent public reaction to the threat of throttled data distribution and rumored concomitant price hikes naturally played out over the very Internet networks to be asphyxiated, becoming commercial and political spectacle itself. Current Presidential-hopeful Senator Ted Cruz, through social media, famously compared net neutrality, a federal mandate for corporations to provide equitable data delivery speeds to its paying-by-choice subscribers, to the healthcare coverage of Obamacare, a federal mandate for consumers to purchase services from corporations in an effort to spur equitable access to insurance, an apples-to-oranges juxtaposition that received much Twitter-gonging and satirical re-appropriation for what manifested as nothing more than inane self-promotion. Meanwhile, the very enemies of net neutrality synchronously reported on the hysteria. For example, a week after Cruz’s quotable outburst, reporter Jane C. Timm critically outlined the senator’s faulty logic in her article “Ted Cruz won’t back down on net neutrality argument.” Timm, however, wrote for msnbc.com, whose parent company, NBCUniversal, had 49% of its ownership stake purchased by Comcast the year prior. While Cruz spouted off against net neutrality, Comcast made contributions to the Jobs, Growth & Freedom Fund, a political action committee bearing Cruz’s face as spokesperson and from which he financially benefits. Comcast obviously benefits from the increased web traffic and advertising exposure across its divisions, stoked by the whole event it helped fund and create. Cruz, acting as a prominent member of the Internet star system, helps displace public consciousness about the enemy and the crime and instead keeps it focused on the spectacle. Furthermore, this performance deliberately shields an underlying terror within the culture industry — the wide-reaching and overwhelming concentration of media and communication controlled by behemoth corporations.

Yet, consumers satiate themselves with endless culture industry diversions, a “means of putting things out of mind … even when on display” [12]. Adorno, speaking of the culture industry’s capacity to inject consumers with fabricated desire, flatly highlights this paradoxical, absurd instance of the public’s eating from the hand that chokes them, how culture “deludes them with false conflicts … [solved] only in appearance” [13]. Accordingly, the technologically mediated phenomenon of net neutrality now seems insignificant: Encircling rhetoric about controlling the speed at which Internet content is delivered moves the public to erupt as it distracts from the fact they have already been manipulated through an amusing sleight of outrage by a culture industry whose weapon instead is the very manipulation of communication and media itself. The fantastical cycle of amusement, the industry itself, speedily whirls unquestionably well around the masses desirous of a freely breathing Internet. Today, using sharpened tools of distraction and shining fanatical stars, the culture industry is primed for mass exploitation through persistent attention-grabbing (mis)information.

Horkheimer and Adorno’s observation of the old culture industry façade — “formal freedom is guaranteed for everyone” — could be the perceived or desired sign hanging on the front door of the Internet now that culture industrialists must yield to a concept of net neutrality, recently enacted by the Federal Communications Commission, who will regulate Internet service as telephony [14]. “However,” the philosophers continue, “all find themselves enclosed … within a system,” which the two delineate as the various community institutions which had historically acted as “the most sensitive instrument of social control.” New members of the growing digitally connected global community do find themselves unwittingly entering a system whereby social interactions are controlled by unseen algorithms, the ultimate form of rationalized decision-making and a cornerstone of corporate and political administration. Horkheimer and Adorno discuss the danger of “mathematical formalism,” under which algorithmic administration certainly falls, and given their assertion that “industrialism makes souls into things,” the industrial algorithm, if appropriately employed by Internet corporations, can help catalyze through standardization of social activity the needed shifts of social consciousness that has led previous generations toward harm [15].

Nevertheless, the varied auras of social media’s function and purpose help parry notice of its manipulative and exploitative capacities, especially its communicative un-freeness. A recent study by a multi-university group of researchers reveals the efficacy of this phenomenon. Motahhare Eslami, et. al., examine how algorithms affect habitual Facebook users’ social perceptions and compare it to their perceptions of the platform. Notably, the researchers point out how nearly two-thirds of participants did not know Facebook’s primary content aggregating feature, the News Feed, is algorithmically controlled, and rather believe that “every single [interaction] from their friends … appeared in their News Feed.” Accordingly, a large percentage of users are likely unaware that social media algorithms can strengthen class bias, redouble racial profiling, and unwittingly censor user-requested data through erroneous electronic “moral judgements, such as [in the removal of] terms deemed to be related to child pornography.” Upon revelation of these facts, though, one participant’s reaction is illuminating: “It’s kind of intense, it’s kind of waking up in ‘the Matrix‘ [sic] in a way. I mean you have what you think as your reality of like what they choose to show you. [...] So you think about how much, kind of, control they have…”. This cinematic comparison is telling since it acknowledges not only the expanded culture industry’s roots, as well as an analogy of social media audience membership to the filmic group experience of watching a screen, but also latent control lurking right behind the production. Facebook, in fact, takes no efforts to conceal their control over their users; in Forbes, Kashmir Hill describes a 2012 “emotion manipulation” experiment Facebook facilitated on 689,003 of its users, whose consent for such subjection the corporation failed to acquire until four months after the social experiment ended. Besides revealing Facebook’s questionable ethical stance, “[t]he experiment manipulated the extent to which people were exposed to emotional expressions in their News Feed,” also revealing how “emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness” [16]. The fact that Facebook has 1.44 billion monthly users, or approximately 20% of the world’s population, emphasizes the immense power consolidated in this one key corporation of the culture industry. This concentrated attention toward a single technological entity, its worldwide spatial reach, and its efficacious expediency are dangerous: Eslami, et. al., discovered the more troubling effects algorithmic filtering stokes, namely that a significant percentage of participants believed, in cases where content from close friends was no longer being displayed in their News Feed, “that friends had dropped them due to political disagreements or their unappealing behavior,” or, flatly, such silence denoted their own inadequacy beyond mere digital interaction resulting from being “not interpersonally close enough.” Other participants plainly expressed anger or frustration at what they viewed as a violation of “their expectations” about Facebook’s product, being treated like experimental mice, “being lied to,” admitting the unseen filters “affect their behavior.” Ultimately, participants realized that the News Feed is operative social manipulation. Though social media might seem for some to be free technological exchanges of discourse, its many users mistake the controlled cinematic Internet screen for unmediated human interaction.

Willingly disrupting human interaction, however, is a key aim and feature of terror.

In his essay “Terror’s Atomization of Man,” Horkheimer and Adorno’s associate Leo Löwenthal offers a phenomenology of terror as affective in the concentration camp and in society in the wake of the Holocaust. Löwenthal notes operative similarities in its effects between the two domains, long before digital social media when news traveled fastest through the vocal grapevine. He plainly begins that terror has deep roots “in the trends of modern civilization, and especially in the pattern of modern economy” [17]. He distinguishes an “interruption of the causal relation between what a person does and what happens to him” as key in an operation which seeks “dehumanization through the total integration of the population into collectivities, then depriving them of the psychological means of direct communication in spite of — rather because of — the tremendous communications apparatus to which they are exposed” [18]. By manipulating social interaction, severely influencing one’s subjective experience by disrupting the traditional expectations and operations of interpersonal communication, he believes, the Nazis were able to transform “a human being … into a unit of atomized reactions” [19]. This function, however, operated on both victims and the perpetrators, shaping the latter’s mentality to stoke, justify, and enable the performance of psychological and physical violence behind camp walls, and provoke a phenomenal assumption that their complicit manufacturing of terror would mine their own “self-perpetuation” [20]. Löwenthal identifies this as a type of “cultural monopoly,” an industrialization that equates human beings to raw goods or merchandise [21]. Outside of the concentration camp confines, he sees cultural monopolization and the steady improvement of technology together increasingly transforming human beings to be “largely superfluous,” which he views as another “pre-condition of terror” [22]. Thus, separating individuals by disrupting communication and categorically generalizing them, simply like groups of objects inside resulting cultural monopolies, prepares them “to accept the most insane ideologies and patterns of domination and persecution” as it provides those entities bearing totalitarian desires “a road to power and an object for its exercise” [23]. This effort of emotional control, “the systematic modification of the ideas and feelings of the masses,” Löwenthal points out, was Adolf Hitler’s operative bedrock [24].

Despite the chronological distance for the world’s most recent catastrophic event, because today’s always-on culture industry loudly reports tragic events as spectacle, threats of unprecedented danger are never far from the horizon. Terrors unrealized and freedom’s fragility are kept perpetually in view. In his 1965 essay, “Threats to Freedom,” a part of his Critique of Instrumental Reason, Horkheimer peers at the concept of freedom from several angles and attempts to outline “manifestations of [its] regression” in society that result from social and technological change [25]. Notably, Horkheimer indirectly juxtaposes the socioeconomic demands placed upon citizens of centuries past beside the technological imposition citizens face today, drawing out the distinction that, between those two abstract historical periods, the ideological “limitation of freedom had caused the further development of freedom,” especially experienced in the bourgeoisie-proletarian dichotomy [26]. He believes intervening “technological revolution” fails to improve and undergird living conditions for most and then intimates it rather atomizes society further [27]. He provides two interesting examples: first, television, which radically changes how children discover their world — discovery through a “screen and its images” — and de-prioritizes interaction with one’s parents; second, courtship, evidenced by a “pamphlet giving the young man rules” for interaction with women, which explains how to quantitatively assess them and make a “rational” choice to successfully find a bride [28]. The former example still rings true today: a recent report shows “[o]ver a third of children under the age of 1 have used a device like a smartphone or tablet,” with a majority of their parents employing Internet devices as a means “to calm their child.” Horkheimer sees this technologically mediated formative engagement with one’s external world as negatively resulting in intellectual passivity [29]. And Horkheimer’s latter example merely typifies an analog algorithm, or a program of rules and calculations to derive a result, primitive technology, as simple as a kitchen recipe, but certainly prototypical of programmatic News Feed interactivity. Irrespective of whichever technology transacts data, though, Horkheimer qualifies mass media as “suggestion and manipulation … bound up with the active supplying of information” [30].

Technological progress, Horkheimer proceeds, continually facilitates surveillance [31]. And surveillance significantly equips its agents to control the surveilled. Culture industry corporations, actively supplying parts of the world with its daily information, monitor their users’ provided expressions, interests, and digital relationships shared on or transmitted through their platforms. Essentially, consumers freely proffer complete dossiers of themselves. This starkly contrasts the burden that previous generations of watchers faced in assembling complex profiles of individuals or groups. A person’s sentiments, movements through space, employment activity, affiliations, and other minutiae are effortlessly cataloged each time a user updates their digital presence. Hitherto privileged or secret diaries are now transacted freely, serialized amongst entertainment and news. Social media’s auras of amusement and interaction distract and cajole consumers into exchanging their own daily information for participation in the Internet star system, into donating data in order to retain the privilege of being seen. Though the divide between mass murder and mass media is wide — Hitler’s intentions were unequivocally malicious while the culture industry’s motivation is outwardly capitalistic — the current monopolization of consumer attention, their communication, and its consolidation through increasingly intrusive technological interaction should jar those individuals who are unwilling to consider a comparison of history to the present and who instead stare gapingly into their battery-powered, handheld, black mirrors of the Internet. The culture industry’s growing intimate examination of consumers’ behavior increasingly renders them vulnerable to social atomization, and this consequence of a watched Internet community is clear: Eslami, et. al., reveal almost half of their participants, in addition to experiencing personal behavioral changes as a result of the algorithmically triggered disruption in communicative causality, also report digital familial disconnection — that is to say, the experience of atomizing alienation between biological family members due to reduced exposure to their digital activity — perceiving this phenomenon as Facebook’s flawed categorization of “people.” The emotion manipulation experiment, “given the massive scale of social networks such as Facebook,” similarly alerted its researchers, who believe that in terms of digital emotional sway, “even small effects can have large aggregated consequences” [32]. The social media algorithm, once programmed by its corporation, efficiently operates as a surveilling digital biographer and social arbiter, recording data, assessing comportment, matchmaking new relationships, and choosing the news to feed to its consumers, commercial manipulation with great effect on subjective and interpersonal consciousness. Today’s media landscape, simultaneously more controlled by its producers and more personalized for each consumer, is primed for a considerably surreptitious use of imagery and rhetoric, and methods of media distraction, often constructed as means of entertainment, increasingly operate in society as systematic terroristic acts themselves. Since the advancement of Internet technology seems to continue on a meteoric trajectory, now venturing into the realm of wearable biometric interfaces, the threat to human consciousness through cultural manipulation is real.

While concentration camps have heretofore been physical spaces filled with people forcibly contained, surveilled, atomized, and tortured, in the current epoch of humans increasingly digitizing their lives, their communities transcending oceans inasmuch as existing across multiple server farms, it might be time to question how terror can operate on large concentrations of digitized consciousness. A need for barbed wire or force might be giving way to free participation and distraction. To the extent the Internet and social media facilitate cultural exchange and communication, it also puts its consumers under producers’ constant spotlight. Digital presence is an always-illuminated duplex of watching and being watched. For some, this is already terroristic enough.

Participating on the Internet is still voluntary, but to function and live without it is becoming increasingly difficult, especially once one has been accustomed to it. But to avoid surveillance in a post-9/11 world is nearly impossible. Horkheimer indicates how surveillance’s “influence … on our speech is evident,” that knowledge of its ongoing occurrence changes communicative behavior; moreover, “great words,” he continues, like “freedom, lose their meaning,” especially in repetition. Horkheimer offers an anecdote on this latter disintegration:

A while back I received a well-meaning pamphlet on educational reform, with the request that I go through it very carefully. On the first page the word freedom was used thirteen times. In my answer I said that if I should find the word honesty used thirteen times in a business advertisement, I would surely buy nothing from such a store [33].

Consider, now, Bush’s aforementioned State of the Union address, his language of terrorism. Consider the rhetorical sway of drumbeating “terror,” “terrorism,” “terrorists,” ceaselessly through the media. Consider the metronomic tension of a ticking clock in a silent room hushed by heightened emotions. Consider the nuisance of a nervously tapping stranger’s finger in a quieted public space. Repetitive sameness considerably accumulates distractive transfixion over time. Willed ignorance or selective unconsciousness will nevertheless muffle a relenting clock’s tick, de-powering its ability to affect us; consider the ignorance one must exercise to silence the incessant news accounts that report what once were merely aggravated crimes, but now market to audiences better as domestic terrorism. Sameness of sound — which repetitive rhetoric triggers, too — promotes an active mode of unconsciousness, an intellectual passivity, an acquiescence to its existence, resignation to its cycle.

But the clock still ticks.

With those twenty-five seconds of acquiescent applause, Congress audibly assented to the power a leader needs in a time of crisis. Bush’s rhetoric launched into its echoey drumbeat, a years-long reliance on constant reiteration of words like “terror” and “freedom” to structure his media engagement with the public. Despite the fact that a conceptualization of freedom is as nebulous as one of terror, mankind respectively seeks and relies on the use of both in order to live [34]. Actively aware of this or no, Bush’s conflating drumbeat shaped national consciousness and pacified their sentiment, hoping to unite a nation. But to corral people is also to contain something which stands outside them, and to corral people is to corral power.

And so we fought.

Bush’s tick-tock language, however, masked terror, one, at the time, dependent on a passive public unable to scrutinize it. Though the post-9/11 war on terror appeared to have an “advantage of being … free of all moral ambiguity,” since then scores of individuals have revealed the questionable machinations it fueled [35]. In particular, former United States Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, now jailed for espionage after leaking an astounding trove of classified documents to the public, wrote in the New York Times about the United States government’s wartime manipulation of the media. Likewise, former CIA contractor Edward Snowden exposed the concurrent construction of a mass surveillance sponge that soaks up much of the public’s exposure on the Internet, especially from social media, categorizing it as “extremely questionable surveillance for reasons entirely unrelated to national security.” The backbone of this digital panopticon is powered by for-profit corporations, in particular Amazon, who furnishes the CIA with remote server farms, as well as other behemoths like AT&T and, of course, Facebook. Today’s Stasi is vertically integrated with not just the culture industry but the whole economic system around which it whirls. Consumers’ interactions with social media sites create the streams of content delivered to other consumers to fuel incessant interactivity, the necessary resource to create revenue; synchronously, from these incessant streams of content, terror-weary intelligence agencies purportedly derive intelligence content delivered to anti-terror operations, a resource necessarily fueling a war against terror. Although Löwenthal warned technology would ultimately lead to human beings’ superfluousness, industry now thrives dependably on his other fear, merchandised human interaction. Consumers who manufacture the content fed to other consumers exist as a workforce exploited for their creativity, remunerated primarily with free participation in a system of cyclical amusement, and this labor complements the self-perpetuation of an ever-hungry intelligence machine, whose expanding structure props up the whole system on the backend.

The consumer is the product. That is terror.

Bush’s language also masked depraved motivations within his administration. Torture, terror reified through physical violence, became a valued resource in the Bush war machine. On December 10, 2014, the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, chaired by Senator Dianne Feinstein, released its heavily redacted, unclassified “Findings and Conclusions” from the Committee Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, commonly referred to as the CIA Torture Report. In her Foreword, Feinstein notes her own memory scorched by 9/11:

I recall vividly watching the horror of that day, to include the television footage of innocent men and women jumping out of the World Trade Center towers to escape the fire. The images, and the sounds as their bodies hit the pavement far below, will remain with me for the rest of my life.

She acknowledges the indelible effect this living visual “context” holds on public consciousness, its reverberant shock and undulation through the intelligence and defense communities, a collective fear of more terror. And she summarizes how, underneath the fear of these undulations, suspected terrorists detained by the United States “were tortured.” The Report describes gruesome treatments — sleep and food deprivation, waterboarding, medically unnecessary “rectal feeding” — obsequiously termed “enhanced interrogation techniques” by the CIA yet akin to Nazi concentration camp protocol. Though the Committee repeatedly finds such torture to be defensively worthless, The New York Review of Books contributor Mark Danner reveals worse: CIA administration ordered the repeated methodical torture of post-9/11 detainees despite “the strenuous objections of the interrogators” charged with its undertaking, and:

the use of those techniques, in this brutal, appalling extended fashion, had let them prove, to their satisfaction, that [a detainee] didn’t know what [administrators] had been convinced that he did know. It had nothing to do with him giving more information as he was waterboarded. The use of these techniques let them alleviate their own anxiety.

Danner’s assessment demonstrates Löwenthal’s paradigm of terror manufactured to placate its perpetrator’s hand. Danner also describes how a “hysteria” — about torture’s lawfulness, use, and efficacy — resounding inside the Bush administration also intentionally played out in the media, often hinged on the faulty classified intelligence extracted from the atomized reactions of tortured detainees [36]. This substantiates Adorno’s construct of distractive false desires: spectacle utilized to positively stoke public sentiment on the necessity or performance of torture all while actually helping to deflect from the fact that the performance was already underway.

As a consequent to the American torture program, the recursion of terror is very visible on the public’s horizon. While 9/11 was minimally witnessed on the Internet at the time, today’s terrorist organizations take maximum advantage of its broadcast spectrum. Instigated by not only the CIA torture program but also decades of American imperialism and fueled with hateful malevolence, organizations like the Islamic State (ISIS) have now instead embraced American creativity in service to their motives of terror. Their recent murders of hostages, particularly American journalist James Foley, reignited fears when slickly produced, high-definition short films of the executions were released directly on the Internet and gained immediate virality. In his recent article “Islamic State and its increasingly sophisticated cinema of terror,” Los Angeles Times reporter Jeffrey Fleishman keenly identifies ISIS’s tactics as one with “Hollywood aesthetics … stylized for a world wired to social media.” He claims beyond the incitation of the public’s fear and rage, ISIS hopes, through recruitment spurred by such productions, to grow their membership, attracting especially the impressionably young and disenfranchised. He describes the awful, methodically filmed immolation of Jordanian pilot Lt. Moaz Kasasbeh, a devastating montage of highly choreographed visual narrative and footage of Syrians alleged to have been killed by U.S. coalition forces. Frighteningly, as his article points out, the films’ draw is an “apocalyptic” “perverted ideology”: polished real-life performances of Hollywood’s reliably crude narratives — violence, horror, and, from a Muslim’s perspective as victim, retaliation — meant to advertise a “primitive brand” of governance in contrast to that of the free world. Writing about the films for Al Akhbar English, the blog of Egypt’s second-largest daily newspaper, reporter Islam Sakka explains how “the group has moved from recording events with regular cameras, to becoming a media strategy organization whose task is to shape the group’s upcoming messages to the world.” Sakka even underscores the conceptual, subjective underpinnings of their working style: “All sounds were intentionally muted to create an atmosphere of anticipation. This is how ISIS wanted it, and this is how we unconsciously deal with it.” And their strategy is effective, attracting to their operations, with ancillary social media spectacle, new, young enlistees not only from Europe and the Middle East, but America, too. On one hand, young recruits purchasing the propaganda must assume that in order to win the capital of freedom from torture and imperialism, it must be wrested from or extinguished in another, an iteration of the bourgeoisie-proletarian dichotomy; that is to say, the creation of their freedom through the fatal limitation of it elsewhere. On the other hand, exposure to filmic imagery of actual torture — arguably torture itself directed at the viewer, like the live shot of an airplane destroying 5000 lives — exhibited amongst the disruptive communication systems of social media, proves to be paving roads toward terrorist ideologies of dominance which advocate insane persecution, roads on which these new willing enlistees assent to being the exploited objects for its exercise.

As technology continues to enable new methods for the manipulation of consciousness and the manifestation of terror, a recommendation for preventative limitations or deterrent restrictions might seem fit. But, Horkheimer warns against attempts to reverse exposure to or eschew technology: “flight into the past is no help to the freedom that is being threatened” [37]. Still, he believes “the human individual” is fading into “a world of numbers [that] is becoming the only valid one” [38]. As younger generations increasingly encounter the digital Internet technologies crafted of atomic zeroes and ones to be as natural as life itself, humanity becomes more identifiable by its digital avatars; the current pervasive phenomenon of the selfie, the obsessive sharing of one’s own image on social media, even demonstrates, as Horkheimer notes, how self-awareness is being sublated by an industrialized “corporate mentality” [39]. Considering culture industry corporations’ continued push into the developing world and their glowing presence in undereducated communities, and considering that these corporations’ proprietary technologies — particularly their cherished and valued structural algorithms — generally remain heavily guarded, these communities are the most susceptible to terror operations hiding behind digital avatars, to corporate and government propaganda appearing as non-fictive, and to the algorithmic myopia of censored or meticulously curated content appearing as unfettered. Such tactics could greatly affect local intersubjectivity and foment, intentional or otherwise, communal atomization. As terror organizations like ISIS expand their technological capacities, upgrade their media production facilities, and grow their proprietary distribution networks and social media sites — often graphically designed to indiscernibly mimic their Western analogues — the division between economic capitalism and terror capitalism, too, blurs, a divide which might be glaring to an American purview, but deceptively exploitable elsewhere.

The progressive normalization of digitally negotiated relationships — the standardization of embodying a digital presence submitted for its rationalized, distributed exhibition — risks damaging a perceptive richness natural to unmediated human-to-human interaction. Today’s culture industry, its fuel of virality, its promise of incessancy, and most of all its capacity for stardom, invites everyone, anyone, to take their own picture and submit it to the spotlight. On the infinite scroll of the Internet, the selfie exists beside the celebrity, it fits snugly above the riots and below the crimes. Each uploaded image of the self is an insertion into its cinema. But transfixed in the confines of cinema, affixed to a screen waiting to subsume heroes and villains, audiences never truly see themselves.

[1] Chaliand, Gérard, and Arnaud Blin, eds. The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to Al Qaeda. Trans. Edward Schneider, Kathryn Pulver, and Jesse Browner. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. pp. vii-viii.
[2] Ibid p. 412.
[3] Ibid p. vii.
[4] Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Stanford, Calif: Stanford UP, 2002. pp. 113-126.
[5] Ibid p. 94.
[6] Ibid pp. 131-133.
[7] Adorno, Theodor W. The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. London: Routledge, 1991. p. 87.
[8] Ibid pp. 86-87.
[9] Horkheimer and Adorno p. 115.
[10] Mann, Denise. “The Spectacularization of Everyday Life: Recycling Hollywood Stars and Fans in Early Television Variety Shows.” Private Screenings: Television and the Female Consumer. Lynn Spiegel and Denise Mann. eds Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota, 1992.
[11] Horkheimer and Adorno p. 116.
[12] Ibid pp. 113-116.
[13] Adorno p. 90.
[14] Horkheimer and Adorno p.120.
[15] Ibid pp. 20-21.
[16] Kramer, Adam D. I., Jamie E. Guillory, and Jeffrey T. Hancock. “Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111.24 (2014): 8788-8790.
[17] Löwenthal, Leo. “Terror’s Atomization of Man.” German 20th-Century Philosophy: The Frankfurt School. Schirmacher, Wolfgang, ed. New York: Continuum, 2000. p. 81.
[18] Ibid p. 82.
[19] Ibid p. 83.
[20] Ibid pp. 83-84.
[21] Ibid pp. 85-86, 90.
[22] Ibid p. 89.
[23] Ibid pp. 89-90.
[24] Hitler, Adolph. Quoted on Löwenthal pp. 90-91.
[25] Horkheimer, Max. Critique of Instrumental Reason. London ; New York: Verso, 2012. pp. 156; 138-139.
[26] Ibid pp. 136-140.
[27] Ibid p. 140.
[28] Ibid p. 141.
[29] Ibid p. 140.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid p. 142.
[32] Kramer, Guillory, and Hancock.
[33] Horkheimer p. 142.
[34] Ibid p. 144.
[35] Chaliand and Blin p. 415.
[36] Ibid.
[37] Horkheimer p. 140.
[38] Ibid p. 157.
[39] Ibid pp. 157-158.

Art school.


…you just saved 100% on life assurance by switching from Simco.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the Dishonest Direction of Life

The compulsion for truth, one might say, drives many to madness. Society’s thirst for justice, its significant valuation of objects of authenticity, true love, one’s real family — these tropes endlessly pepper the canon of cinema with accompanying melodramatic performances of the human condition in urgent, desperate malfunction. The work of German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder distinguishably ranks amongst his peers as beautiful, capable depictions of the conditions for and unraveling of emotional implosion. His work concomitantly disassembles the human ontological structure and the societal structures generally assumed to provide the cohesion necessary for fortifying our being in order to undertake honest living. Two of Fassbinder’s particularly dense and complex movies, Welt am Draht [English: World on a Wire] (1973) and In einem Jahr mit dreizehn Munden [English: In a Year with 13 Moons] (1978), exemplify how he integrates anti-familist themes through reversals of identities, often by mirroring his own personal history onto characters and frequently through transposition of traditional societal archetypes, as a means to underscore how truth victimizes the self. Moreover, he hopes to reveal to his viewers the absurdity and fallibility of identity given the precariousness inherent in truth judgments, something he accomplishes through attentive aesthetic construction, visual metaphor, and reliance on moral and metaphysical philosophy.

Film still, Welt am Draht, Rainer Werner Fassbinder 1973

Film still from Welt am Draht
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973
Courtesy internet

Much of this directorial quest stems from his upbringing, which significantly affected his desires as a filmmaker, his childhood history undeniably present in his anti-familist stories. Notoriously, the director’s father became a distant mirage after his parents’ divorce in his fifth year; likewise, his mother’s subsequent unavailability, selfishly attendant instead to her own concerns, further pushed him into the world reliant solely on his own cognizance. These absences throughout his adolescence assuredly influenced his purview: multiple actors, whom together amassed what was often referred to as his “surrogate family,” have remarked on the director’s evident psychosexual-identity crises that resulted from paternal abandonment and maternal withdrawal [1]. Known for his continual reliance on this cadre of actors, film theorists such as Thomas Elsaesser claim Fassbinder leaned, sometimes caustically, on this group as a way to not only reenact, but also rebuild, and perhaps repair, the unsound formative parts of his psyche. To this effect, as a director — as the father-leader of the group — filmmaking afforded him the opportunity to reverse his own identity: from wandering boy to omnipresent man. Film researcher Jessica Haunschild outlines this phenomenon nicely, describing how his films depict a “desperate loneliness … [that seem] to reflect his own lonely childhood. There is no protective father-figure in his movies” [2]. This makes perfect sense since accepting this fact leads one to posit that the father figure actually stands behind the camera, out of view, almost as a silently screaming concept on the margin of consciousness, in reprise of his own history. Nevertheless, as he assented to in a 1980 interview, the self, the presence of Fassbinder, still remained “clearly at the center” of what viewer’s saw on screen [3]. And, of course, Fassbinder frequently appeared in his movies, sometimes, as in Katzelmacher (1969), as a key figure to the narrative. Film creation for him, then, is also a phenomenological form of self-parenting, a step beyond reversing one’s identity and, in simultaneous contrast, embodying multiple forms of self — parent and child — at once.

Furthermore, it is easy to forget that as recent as ten years ago homosexuality did not hold such fashionable ubiquity as it today does. And despite the fact that some European cultures, Germany in particular, were more quickly culturally tolerant of and brazen with their gayness, films like Frank Ripploh’s Taxi zum Klo [English: Taxi to the John] (1981) and Fassbinder’s Jahr captured the homo- and queerphobia ever present at the time. In fact, not only swayed by his own sexuality but also to present the “exotic side” of society, Fassbinder, a white man who identified as a minority, admittedly chose marginal peoples, of such taboo like transvestitism, for many of his films’ themes in order to depict them as ultimately capable of identifying their own truths, instead of having to suffer from the false, pejorative identifications of others [4].

The socially insignificant and the typically unseen actually play a much more important role for Fassbinder than just thematics, and interestingly enough his sole science fiction work, Welt, demonstrates how he continually brings the oft-overlooked into view. Welt tells the story of the Simulacron 1 machine, a supercomputer that allows its users to construct, enter, and experience alternate worlds that seemingly exist on digital circuitry. The machine thus incites examination of ontology and identity for those who, in real human life, use and, in (real?) digital life, are birthed of it. Welt‘s protagonist, Fred Stiller, at the film’s midpoint, discovers his digital unrealness and spends the final half of the movie trying to exit the multiple layers of the Simulacron and “go up” to reach the summit of “true life”.

Film still from Welt am Draht, Rainer Werner Fassbindr 1973, Photo courtesy The Criterion Collection

Film still from Welt am Draht.
Courtesy: The Criterion Collection

In order to set up this later subjective consternation, Welt is constructed as a world of mirrors and their myriad indications. Quickly, it becomes apparent that almost every scene in the film contains at least one object that displays a reflection, often now glaring out from the margins of otherwise plain sight — not just quotidian mirrors, but pristine glass surfaces, intricate work-desk tchotchkes, high-polish chromed furniture, chic lucite sculptures, shiny marble, and even faintly still waters. Banal objects become outstanding monuments. Everything is meant to be recognized. Such fine detail to mise en scène, coupled with an obsessive attention for cinematographic structuring through precisely calculated angles of framing, according blocking of actors, and multiple-point lighting, all craft a kaleidoscopic aesthetic, the conditions for multiplicative imagery. Early dialogue also reinforces this optical geometry. “You are nothing more,” belts out the Simulacron’s first victim of murderous termination shortly before his death, “than the image others have made of you.” Or, perhaps, we are nothing but a concatenation of multiple reflections. In a much later scene when viewers are led to question characters’ benevolence since it’s never really clear who is real and therefore honest, and in an irregularly geometric room whose walls are made simply of mirror panes, Fassbinder shoots from a high, downward angle outside and above the walls and creates an infinite progression of reflections that represents the interminable possibilities we must face in making judgmental impressions of one’s identity. Identity, Fassbinder visually suggests, is bidirectionally prismatic. Accordingly, Welt confronts viewers with the question of who controls identity: are identities programmed for us, like a computer, by external command, the ideas of others; or, do we program identity ourselves? Or is it an inescapable combination of the two?

Film still from Welt am Draht, Rainer Werner Fassbinder 1973

Film still from Welt am Draht
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973

In his essay “World on a Wire: The Hall of Mirrors,” critic Ed Halter looks these questions in the eye, noting the film’s confrontation with “the relationship of illusion to identity” [5]. After pointing out the film’s reliance on both visual reflectivity and metaphysical philosophy, Halter states that Fassbinder achieved more than just a slick production with its flashy aesthetic, rather he used the film as a meditation on a facet of his own identity, that of a filmmaker. Like a computer which synthesizes alternate worlds, the director, too, creates a “virtual reality.”

Notably, Fassbinder does not appear in Welt, and interpolating this fact with Halter’s claim and the notion of director-as-father might explain a bizarre, outwardly incongruous scene in the film. After Stiller reveals to an associate the ontological unrealness of the digital world that they both inhabit, this confidant, now aware of his own existential nullity, kills himself, although, implicitly, this is merely termination by the Simulacron. Stiller runs away from the scene after being spotted by onlookers, who had been alerted by stories in the press that he is a “murderer,” a term which they scream at him, in chase, as a beautifully choreographic backwards tracking shot that acts as metaphor for fleeing from one’s identity. Action cuts to a close-up of the confident drowning, trapped in a car, under dirty water, a lone, inexplicable goldfish floating across the frame. An elliptical cut now presents Stiller hunched over in a shopping mall, a lone, barefoot, mud-stained boy inexplicably standing strangely beside him “Are you sick?” the boy asks. Stiller answers no and begins to stand up as the camera pulls back, revealing what appears to be an abstract crucifix, a cruciform in reverse, negative space contained by the frame of a clothing display.

Welt am Draht crucifixion

In an archetypical twist, Fassbinder reverses Christ’s crucifixion: Stiller, the elder male of this scene, as analogue for the Father, hung from an invisible cross, and the boy as analogue for the Son, instead the heavenly voice of concern from the wing. Stiller uprights himself and stumbles away, leaving the boy, who attentively follows in desperation, and the two utter no other words to each other. Stiller, as father, is gone and the boy is left alone, looking dazed and damaged, in an unhomely hall of commerce. This boy’s real father is naturally Fassbinder, as film director, especially since this scene’s significance is almost entirely non-diegetic, bearing no effect in the overall plot; however, this scene importantly supports not only Haunschild’s aforementioned claim — despite emotionally desiring other digital entities, Stiller thoroughly disregards and abandons this clearly distraught child — but also Halter’s assertion that Welt is about Fassbinder’s identity. And this out-of-place character is also Fassbinder himself, that abandoned kid who found refuge in commercial movie theaters, and so here the director self-parents once more, that is to say he reprises his neglectful unparenting for and against himself [6]. Inasmuch as this boy that we see is created by Fassbinder’s craft, this boy’s identity — an unseeable obverse image the director nevertheless sees fitting within this films’s narrative — was crafted by the negative space Fassbinder’s emotionally absent parents carved into his life.

This reversal of crucifixion is rich with symbolism, particularly given the fact Welt‘s narrative so heavy relies on modern philosophy. Fassbinder’s transposition of father and son directly challenges the theological narrative of familial hierarchy, a significant jab to the deeply Christian history of his homeland. And, it nods to the West German resistance against patriarchal Nazi ideology then still a heavy topic in public discourse, a topic of which the director was constantly aware [7]. But, religion, a philosophical practice concerned with the “superhuman,” also incites much of the world’s confrontation over the truth [8]. Despite the fact that Fassbinder believes that “[t]he true is the artificial,” his work seems to advocate for the individual’s right to their own truth, regardless of whether that artifice exists in a virtual reality or reality of the first order, or whether it even exists outside of concept at all [9].

In einem Jahr mit dreizehn Munden, Rainer Werner Fassbinder 1978

Volker Spengler in an exceptional performance as Elvira Weisshaupt
In einem Jahr mit dreizehn Munden
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978

A similarly interesting transposition of and exploration through identities takes place in Jahr, what is resoundingly called “one of his most personal films” [10]. Mirrors, the marginalized, and the depiction of Fassbinder himself all help create an interesting virtual reality obverse to Welt. In fact, Jahr, a drama, was originally intended to include direct visual references to Welt, however this ultimately did not coalesce into the final scenic design [11]. Nevertheless, the similarities are plenty. Whereas Welt could be seen as the last few days of a man’s digital life, Jahr tells the story of the last five days of a transgendered female, Elvira, before she commits suicide, after having tried to recreate herself for the affections of the world around her. Film writer Richard Roud describes it as a “parable of the weak being exploited by the strong,” but this implication, snappingly meant to implicate the abusers in her life, can be kaleidoscopically construed in reverse, too [12].

The second scene of the movie depicts Elvira returning home after a failed night cruising for sex to find her lover, Christoph, who himself has just returned after having days before fled their flimsy relationship. The two begin to quarrel and Christoph becomes violent, tension from action and dialogue heightened by a fixed camera that pans nearly 180º back and forth as the two repeatedly march cacophonously between rooms. As the argument reaches a crescendo, Christoph grabs and forcefully drags Elvira by her hair into their bedroom and stands her, unwillingly, in front of a mirror hanging aslant from the wall. A cut-in brings the action close to the mirror, which depicts Christoph mostly in Elvira’s shadow, a scant amount of fill-light barely illuminating his profile. Fassbinder heavily employs this use of half-shadows throughout the film, building upon and in concert with the theme of mirrored, or duplex identities. He achieves this several ways: plainly, by using two-point low-key lighting with ample backfill and diminutive shot scales; extremely, through monochromatic close-ups ; and craftily, by utilizing costume and contrastive-colored mise-en-scène to create a visual metaphor for shadowing, demonstrated here by a nun’s constrictive veiling. Since the film’s story is concerned with transgenderism, these visual motifs are key: Elvira, who was once a man, has become the obverse female, and by bringing her new gender into public light she paradoxically pushes herself into the shadows as both her life’s outsiders scorn her as a freak and her associates similarly humiliate and degrade her. Fassbinder even multiplies this in scenes where his obsessive eye and hand compose frames in which Elvira is presented as herself, her obverse, and her shadow — one object plus two reflections — all at once. And knowing the fact that Fassbinder directed, wrote, produced, shot, and edited Jahr redoubles the sense of gravitas each scene seems to carry, an operatic serial of visual poetry about self-inflicted death after one’s own attempt at rebirth, a succinct verse of his own life.

In his preliminary story for Jahr, Fassbinder describes Elvira’s understanding of Welt am Draht as analogue for her own plane of existence, a world “where apparently genuine living beings are used to try out various reactions” [13]. This suggests Elvira, in an obverse reading of Roud’s assertion, constantly depicted as the victim of physical abuse, has all along been manipulating her abusers as well. New York Times critic Vincent Canby, in his review for the film’s American premiere, agrees, categorizing Elvira as a “monster” craving “salvation.”

Yet, Fassbinder strives to create a constant sense of sympathy for this otherwise monster. He does this by pairing monologues with long takes and tracking shots, camerawork, similar to the frenetic panning that initiated narrative tension, which captures sadness’s kinesis. For instance, in one scene Elvira returns to the convent orphanage where she lived during childhood, to investigate the roots of her psychological strife. She meets and pleads with Sister Gudrun to tell her the truth of her past. Gudrun acquiesces. Gudrun begins a gloomy monologue that retells Elvira’s childhood abandonment, strikingly similar to elements of the director’s own past, as she mournfully paces to and fro in the convent’s courtyard. A tracking shot of Gudrun’s rhythmic pacing is crosscut with Elvira’s synchronous, slow emotional crumbling as she hears her past, the nun traversing horizontally and Elvira ultimately losing her vertical poise. The kinetic contrast is powerful and provocative of compassion.

Lilo Pempeit, In einem Jahr mit dreizehn Munden, Rainer Werner Fassbinder 1978

Lilo Pempeit — the director’s mother
Film still from In einem Jahr mit dreizehn Munden
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978

This scene is incredibly more intoxicating, however, when its shadows are drawn back; Sister Gudrun was played by Lilo Pempeit, the stage name of Fassbinder’s real mother [14]. Like Stiller and the strange disheveled boy in Welt, the juxtaposition of Elvira, a transgendered minority, and Gudrun, equally represents the director’s real life parent-child relationship. But in contrast to Welt‘s veiled cruciform imagery, which attempts to veil cultural archetypes, this scene, with its explicit use of religion, exploits visible mise en scène to trigger critique of the social institution, namely, a suggestion that neither gods nor parents can often spare us from our own self-crucifixions. Still, the fact that Fassbinder’s real mother must perform an emotional undoing of her symbolic son subjects her, if nowhere else but at least on the set, to public humiliation as she must confront her own abandonment of her son. This transposes the repeated humiliation Elvira often receives onto his real mother, whose recitation of dialogue acknowledges real truth as well as diegetically explains Elvira’s predicament, and forces her character to discomfit Fassbinder’s analogue by creatively manipulating its actor.

Reading Jahr for its synthesis of authorial truth and fiction, Fassbinder’s endorsement of artifice as truth makes sense. Unsurprisingly, German philosophy strengthens his assertions. Writing over one-hundred years earlier, Germany’s quintessentially biting moralist, Friedrich Nietzsche, qualified truth as the “sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified transferred and embellished,” essentially false “illusions” [15]. Nietzsche eschews the idea that empirical facts equate truth, going so far as to separate its mode even from the notion of honesty, and instead qualifies truth as a way man self-deceptively idealizes his perceptions in order to abate the fearful possibility of living alone in the world. Nietzsche’s ontology was heavily influenced by his immediate philosophical forebear, Arthur Schopenhauer, a thinker he frequently references. Fassbinder visually references Schopenhauer during Gudrun’s monologue, as she holds one of his books in her hands while she describes the “system of rewarded lies” in which Elvira lived as an orphan. Schopenhauer notably asserts that if a man lies, to respond in belief will encourage further untruths, which would eventually spiral the liar into a personal collapse toward conventional truth — systematic lying begetting personal reward, or, for Schopenhauer, a mode of artistry [16]. Like an image repeating itself around the heart of a kaleidoscope, Fassbinder repeatedly inverts conceptually sinuous narrative motifs to reverse viewers’ beliefs in social institutions, linguistic conventions, and the act of association itself. In contemporary philosopher Andrew J. Mitchell’s essay “The Subject of Film,” in which he analyzes the director’s oeuvre, he describes how the “operative logic” of the filmmaking process and its system of referents leads to the “masochistic logic” Fassbinder’s characters embrace, noting Jahr as an “extreme” case [17]. Even logic, as a philosophical institution, is doubtful.

In einem Jahr mit dreizehn Munden, Rainer Werner Fassbinder 1978

Film still from In einem Jahr mit dreizehn Munden
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978

A later scene stitches together a more explicit sequence of metaphors through the poetic empiricism of montage. After Gudrun’s monologue and with her friend Rote Zora, Elvira returns home to rest, eventually passing out in her bed. Zora begins to watch television, which seems to sentiently, repeatedly change its own channel and form a patchwork of audibly disparate television clips into a mash-up monologue. The clips — news reports of the contemporaneous Chilean political crisis between Salvador Allende and Augusto Pinochet; a couple’s pre-coital arguing and post-coital pillow talk; and, Fassbinder speaking during a television interview — juxtapose manipulative governmental patriarchy, amorous interpersonal negotiation and rejection, and the director’s thoughts on family, fear, futility, and film itself. Zora, just having lulled Elvira to sleep by telling her, as if a child’s mother, a fictitious bedtime story, watches silently. Between digital Fassbinder on the screen and analogue Fassbinder lying in bed Zora’s sits, her comportment slowly deteriorating into an expression of resignation and disbelief, again in very low-key shadow-heavy light. “In my private life,” we hear Fassbinder finally say, “everything could change this evening. I hope it may.” Action cuts to the next day and proceeds toward Elvira’s eventual suicide, the montage left in Zora’s lap, unexplained, an unsolved puzzle, a cryptogram outside the possibility for a diegetic truth.

Before Elvira meets her own end, she encounters a man about to hang himself in a darkened, abandoned office building. The man, who, in his own monologue, waxes philosophically about truth and life, after Elvira inquires of his motivation to die, responds, “I don’t want to let things go on being real because I perceive them,” a direct nod to Schopenhauer [18]. Moments later, on Elvira’s suggestion that his time has come, the anonymous man soon lifelessly dangles from a rope wrapped around his own neck while she, observing, sips a glass of red wine, smokes a cigarette, and again falls asleep. Nonetheless, this man’s dialogue comes across as some of the most cogent and deep in the movie, bordering on paternal advice, and like Stiller’s willful ignorance, he does not attempt to prohibit her from the harm of experiencing his suicide. Again, for Elvira, whose father was as absent as Fassbinder’s, this surrogate figure disappears, a glowing inevitability for all those she encounters, a phenomenon she continually stokes throughout the rest of the film. Though Elvira intimates hopes for improved life, her actions and intentions truly skew otherwise. Her own truths, to herself, seem mysteriously obscured by shadows.

The worlds of Welt and Jahr revolve on the axis of their director; this is clear. Stiller, whose nagging truth was his existential nullity, dies by the hand of his creator’s daughter — another familial perversion — in order to become in fact human; Elvira, whose perception of others’ truths was quite unclear, dies at her own hand after accepting the error of cultivating manipulative, untrue relationships with the family in her world. In both films, the institution of family manipulates its adherents, consciously and conceptually. Do we abandon, then, its use? Fassbinder sidesteps an answer to instead warrant for individuality, and he does this by using his history for artistry. “Indeed,” Nietzsche asserts, “it is only by means of the … web of concepts that the waking man clearly sees that he is awake” [19]. Fassbinder’s dreamworld web, then, inspires him, and his viewers, to arise into their own dreamt-up identities, or, if nothing else, admonishes the belief that to know the truth can be more dangerous than fiction.

[1] Elsaesser, Thomas. Fassbinder’s Germany: History, Identity, Subject. Amsterdam University Press, 1996. Kurt Raab quoted on pp. 301-302.
[2] Haunschild, Jessica. The Perception of Foreign Films by American College Students: Two Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Ibidem-Verlag, 1997. p. 19.
[3] Fassbinder, Rainer Werner. The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes. Michael Töteberg and Leo Lensing, editors. Krishna Winston, translation. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Ernst Burkel quoted on p. 41.
[4] Fassbinder p. 19.
[5] Halter, Ed. “World on a Wire: The Hall of Mirrors.” The Criterion Collection.
[6] Elsaesser p. 301.
[7] Ibid pp. 178-181.
[8] New Oxford American Dictionary. 3rd ed. 2012.
[9] Fassbinder p. 198.
[10] Elsaesser p. 197.
[11] Elsaesser p. 205; Fassbinder pp. 192-193.
[12] Elsaesser quoted on p. 198.
[13] Fassbinder p. 194.
[14] Elsaesser p. 301.
[15] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870’s. Daniel Breazeale, translation. Humanity Books, 1999 p. 84.
[16] Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation, Volume 1. E. F. J. Payne, translation. Dover, 1969. pp. 244-250.
[17] Mitchell, Andrew J. “The Subject of Film.” Cinematic Thinking: Philosophical Approaches to the New Cinema. James Phillips, editor. Stanford University Press, 2008. p. 131.
[18] Ibid 131-132.
[19] Nietzsche p. 89.