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Austin Cline

Imitation of Culture; Culture of Imitation

By December 9, 2012

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Is American politics following American culture by creating images and ideas that have no basis in reality? Postmodernist critiques of American culture as creating "imitation reality" that determines "real reality" may start being applicable to American politics as well, not to mention American culture. Christmas is an excellent example of how an imitation reality can determine people's perception of "real reality" for two reasons.
French Santa, 1910
French Santa, 1910
Photo: Transcendental/Getty

First, so much of the "nostalgia" associated with Christmas is manufactured nostalgia -- and manufactured by corporations trying to separate you from your money while getting you to believe that this hyper-commercialism is inherent to Christmas.

Second, so many of the symbols, practices, and traditions we associate with Christmas was also manufactured in recent history, often by corporations which were once again trying to sell things.

Philalethes wrote a couple of years ago:

In America's smaller towns, neighborhoods have been destroyed and businesses torn down, only to be replaced by chain businesses that offer a cheap imitation of the community values they ruined. "Old-fashioned" qualities - such as conscientious workmanship - are promoted in cavernous, dismal buildings that were made cheaply, out of shoddy materials, by people whose emotional investment in their work was at a bare minimum. Lovely Victorian buildings are torn down, to make way for some gigantic drab enclosure where faux-Victorian gaslights are sold. Our neighbors are driven from their houses and scattered to the four winds, so that chain stores can arrive and proclaim themselves our "good neighbors."

In my review of Culture Industry I wrote about the notion of manufactured nostalgia:

Consider just how much a part of today's commercialized Christmas runs on "manufactured nostalgia," like an old truck burning diesel fuel. We are bombarded with images of snowy fields, gingerbread men baking in the oven, immaculately decorated Christmas trees, carolers outside the window, children sitting around the fire, and so on and so forth.

I'm sure that these scenes form the memories of some people, but they aren't the only ones who experience nostalgia for such events -- there is a common feeling that scenes such as those describe the "perfect" Christmas Past, regardless of what one's real Christmas memories are. This nostalgia isn't created for our benefit, of course -- it's created because it sells products for large companies and perpetuates ideas about the perfect home life that we'd like to hear.

This manufactured nostalgia for Christmas is similar to a lot of problems we see in politics. Consider, for example, the manufactured nostalgia for the 1950s when people were respectful (blacks had to be subservient to whites, women had to demure to men), crime was low (police could beat false confessions out of suspects), families stayed together (women had few prospects outside marriage), and so forth. The nostalgia is manufactured by lies and suppressing all the negative experiences of so many people -- and of just about everyone who wasn't a white Protestant male.

Philalethes' comments remind me of Jean Baudrillard:

Baudrillard's concept of simulation is the creation of the real through conceptual or "mythological" models which have no connection or origin in reality. The model becomes the determinant of our perception of reality -- the real. Homes, relationships, fashion, art, music, all become dictated by their ideal models presented through the media. Thus the boundary between the image, or simulation, and reality implodes (breaks down). This creates a world of hyperreality where the distinctions between real and unreal are blurred. ...

The masses get bombarded by these images (simulations) and signs (simulacra) which encourage them to buy, vote, work, play,... but eventually they become apathetic (i.e. cynical). Because simulations and simulacra ultimately have no referents, the social begins to implode. This process of social entropy leads to the collapse of all boundaries between meaning, the media, and the social -- no distinction between classes, political parties, cultural forms, the media, and the real. Simulation and simulacra become the real so there are no stable structures on which to ground theory or politics. Culture and society become a flux of undifferentiated images and signs.

Also:

Baudrillard is not merely suggesting that postmodern culture is artificial, because the concept of artificiality still requires some sense of reality against which to recognize the artifice. His point, rather, is that we have lost all ability to make sense of the distinction between nature and artifice. To clarify his point, he argues that there are three "orders of simulacra":

1) in the first order of simulacra, which he associates with the pre-modern period, the image is a clear counterfeit of the real; the image is recognized as just an illusion, a place marker for the real;

2) in the second order of simulacra, which Baudrillard associates with the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, the distinctions between the image and the representation begin to break down because of mass production and the proliferation of copies. Such production misrepresents and masks an underlying reality by imitating it so well, thus threatening to replace it (e.g. in photography or ideology); however, there is still a belief that, through critique or effective political action, one can still access the hidden fact of the real;

3) in the third order of simulacra, which is associated with the postmodern age, we are confronted with a precession of simulacra; that is, the representation precedes and determines the real. There is no longer any distinction between reality and its representation; there is only the simulacrum.

Have American culture and politics reached the "third order," where representations are determining what is "real"?

Philalethes continues:

Surely, there's more than a little of Las Vegas in America's religious notions, which increasingly boil down to the worker's daydream of getting the last laugh. But here, the fantasy turns a bit darker. It's not enough to thrive, not enough to be singled out for reward while the scoffers turn green with envy; everyone who's "bad" must suffer.

If the American God - the God, that is, of Scofield and Darby - is made in our own image, he's based partially on the office drone's vision of winning the lottery, and partially on the coward's admiration for brute force, but mainly on the overworked postal worker's dream of double-barreled justice. This God shares in our petty prejudices, damns whatever frightens us or angers us, and pointlessly punishes people whose personal knowledge of suffering is already more than deep enough.

If the postmodern critiques of culture are applied to politics, it sounds like a recipe for fascism. Very disturbing food for thought, here...

Comments
December 26, 2007 at 5:23 pm
(1) Paul Buchman says:

If the postmodern critiques of culture are applied to politics, it sounds like a recipe for fascism.

Let me see if I understand this right. To continue the scenario:
Bush leaves us with truncated civil rights, a bad war, mountains of debt, a falling dollar, a wider discrepancy between rich and poor, etc. Then his Reaganesque successor proclaims that things are better they’ve ever been. If a majority of the people buy into that, then the current state of political affairs becomes a new baseline for “freedom,” “prosperity,” or whatever.

Am I getting warm?

December 26, 2007 at 6:11 pm
(2) Child of Thorns says:

Austin, how do the views expressed in the quotes lead to fascism, I am curious.

December 26, 2007 at 7:34 pm
(3) Austin Cline says:

Austin, how do the views expressed in the quotes lead to fascism, I am curious.

I didn’t say that the views lead to fascism. The quoted critique of culture does, however, sound like a description of a fascist state: admiration for brute force, brutal punishment for those who are “bad,” double-barreled “justice” designed to simply eliminate all enemies, reliance on fear and anger as motivation for action, etc.

A fascist political system requires a culture that is either already fascist or is amenable to fascism. This means that any critique of American culture and religion which indicates strong fascist components or tendencies must be treated as warning signs for a possible fascist political system down the road.

Paul is making an important point above: when people cannot distinguish between real freedom and the faux freedom as defined by authoritarian leaders, then the representations created by those leaders become the new “reality” as understood by people. This, in turn, makes it easier to impose fascism while still pretending that it’s a form of “freedom.”

December 26, 2007 at 8:25 pm
(4) Child of Thorns says:

“I didn’t say that the views lead to fascism. The quoted critique of culture does, however, sound like a description of a fascist state: admiration for brute force, brutal punishment for those who are “bad,” double-barreled “justice” designed to simply eliminate all enemies, reliance on fear and anger as motivation for action, etc.

A fascist political system requires a culture that is either already fascist or is amenable to fascism. This means that any critique of American culture and religion which indicates strong fascist components or tendencies must be treated as warning signs for a possible fascist political system down the road.

Paul is making an important point above: when people cannot distinguish between real freedom and the faux freedom as defined by authoritarian leaders, then the representations created by those leaders become the new “reality” as understood by people. This, in turn, makes it easier to impose fascism while still pretending that it’s a form of “freedom.”

Thankyou, I have been enlightened.

December 27, 2007 at 11:55 am
(5) tracieh says:

>when people cannot distinguish between real freedom and the faux freedom as defined by authoritarian leaders, then the representations created by those leaders become the new “reality” as understood by people.

As in “Jesus will set you free.” Looking back at my Xian past, I see all too clearly how people can be taught that a major authoritarian lockdown is “real freedom.”

It’s a bit frightening really, to come out of something like that, realizing how easy it is/was to be/have been taken in by that sort of indoctrination and ideology.

Memes can be very complex and tricky things.

December 27, 2007 at 3:07 pm
(6) Child of Thorns says:

“Looking back at my Xian past, I see all too clearly how people can be taught that a major authoritarian lockdown is “real freedom.””

Yes, some people have a very strange defenition of freedom.

December 20, 2009 at 2:22 pm
(7) ChuckA says:

A very interesting re-post, indeed, Austin.
What popped, immediately, into my mind was that little ‘Matrix’ oriented mantra:
“This is just a simulation.”
Also, regarding tracieh’s reflection on: “Jesus will set you free”…”You mean, the notion that Heaven is some kind of eternal freedom? Concealed slavery, I’d say; an endlessly boring, actually choice-less tyranny…with NO resemblance to what most of us engage in, in the here and now…which, in ‘reality’, is the all too unrecognized ‘divine’ archetype of fascism.
In a sense, indoctrinated religious believers are into setting up a “double layered” barrier against any recognition of “True Reality”. One layer is the absolute_LITERAL_belief in the totally fabricated ancient mythology; the other layer is the contemporary, extremely commercialized, media indoctrinated, ‘faux’ reality.
Kinda like the “Double-mint gum” idea:
“Two phony notions (click, click!) in one bogus reality concept”…
or something like that. ;)

In the two years since the first posting of this subject…including the above interesting (2007) comments…what’s changed? Are people more, or less, out of touch with ‘reality’? Personally, as an atheist observer, I think we’re, perhaps, much more aware of just HOW out of touch the overwhelming majority of people are with any truly…factual, Scientifically evidential…reality; especially, I’d say, in the US of A.
Watching the often delusional insanity currently going on with the American Health Care shtick, taking into account the craziness of the 2008 election, and looking towards the 2010 & 2012 elections, the “Global Warming” controversy…zama, zama…
well…you get the picture. (feigns biting fingernails)
What!…”Fasten you seat belts, folks…?”

December 25, 2009 at 3:36 pm
(8) John Hanks says:

The strict definition of Fascism is a melding of commerce and government in order to control the people. Isn’t Fascism a constant?

December 25, 2009 at 5:02 pm
(9) Donald Isenman says:

We are already living in a fascist state as it is usually defined; we have only the illusion of democracy. The U.S.A. is a national security state controlled by a military industrial congressional complex that is impervious to change. The war machine grinds on so Obama ran on the the illusion of hope and change knowing that is what people want. But the controlling elites will not allow change until the country is bankrupt and China stops buying our worthless bonds.

December 27, 2009 at 8:38 am
(10) Beatnik Bob says:

I just want to disagree with Philalethes’ first sentence. The big box stores open up on the edge of the small town, where they have room for their big building and massive parking lot. Downtown is still there, boarded up and falling apart. Then the big box store closes its first store to build a “super store”, leaving a big building and a lot of asphalt.

January 2, 2010 at 9:29 am
(11) Eupraxsophy says:

It all starts with pride. Deception is the wisdom of pride. When one believes that deception (religious superstitious dogma) is the truth they themselves start to deceive others. Their moral values and ethics apply to their god’s will. But their god(s) are nothing more than a manifestation of their own pride. One form of deception will almost always be built upon another lie. But because it has no integrity of truth it will fall. And those who are deceived shall fall with it.

Hitler believed that the Jews where a race that was an abomination to God and that he was acting in accordance to his god’s will by creating genecide of the Jews, but it didn’t just end there, soon he turned his focus on others like the Communist, Democracy, and others who opposed his fascist ideas. And in the end Hitler will be remembered as being one of the most evilest monsters that has ever existed.

Dwight D. Eisenhower once warned about creating a war for profit as the Military Industrial Complex. And yet this country has had presidents and wars after Eisenhower’s warning like, Ronald Reagan building up our military during a time of peace, and George W. Bush’s oil war for profit in Iraq.

If Obama has done anything for humility it is when he uplifted the ban that Bush implimented on seeing our fallen soldiers on their final return home. I believe we as U.S. citizens should see their sacrifies so that we are humbled and know the true price of freedom as opposed to Bush conveniently hiding the truth about his profitable oil war.
War should never be for convenance, vengence, or profit, but only when necessary to satisfy justice.

December 9, 2012 at 11:38 pm
(12) Daniel in the Lions' Den says:

Interesting, thoughtful article. Kind of says things I’ve been thinking, such as what appears to be the fake anger about “the war on xmas”, you-name-it antigay commentaries, especially about “traditional marriage”, and the anti-Obama fake controversies, such as his “communism”. Simulation, fake nostagia to times that never existed, and fake anger about losing what never was to enemies who are not. Alice in the looking glass?

December 9, 2012 at 11:38 pm
(13) Daniel in the Lions' Den says:

Interesting, thoughtful article. Kind of says things I’ve been thinking, such as what appears to be the fake anger about “the war on xmas”, you-name-it antigay commentaries, especially about “traditional marriage”, and the anti-Obama fake controversies, such as his “communism”. Simulation, fake nostagia to times that never existed, and fake anger about losing what never was to enemies who are not. Alice in the looking glass?

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