Sunday, January 3, 2016

Ice buckets and mimetic moronism

There are a whole bunch of critics out there who have suggested that this Ice Bucket Challenge thing has gone too far. At least, this is what they suggested when this happened way back in 2014 when this was first published. But, what if it hasn’t gone far enough?
Maybe people should instead start randomly hacking off their own limbs with machetes before nominating others to do the same in order to promote an awareness of ALS, or some other major disease or cause. Or maybe people should start something called the Guillotine Challenge, whereby the French nation’s greatest contribution to Making Beheading Easy can team up with the internet’s formidable contribution to Making Stupidity Popular. At least such a use of sharp weaponry would allow people to identify more strongly with the genuinely traumatic state of those who are actually diagnosed with a terminal illness instead of trivializing it completely. The beheadings will, I think, also be quite appropriate symbolically speaking: they would mirror pretty much exactly what’s already happening out there in Internetland. If thine head causes you to be a moron, lop it off; for it is better to exit the Kingdom of This World a moron than to be accused of reasoning properly. 
My concerns with the ideological apparatus of the Ice Bucket Challenge, however, go further than merely observing its tendency to force an association between the truly terrible and the truly ridiculous. Although you know this already (or, at least, I hope you do), it’s worth looking again how the game works: (1) First, you get nominated by someone who both loves and hates you, (2) then you have twenty-four hours to douse yourself in ice-cube infested water or, (3) if you fail to comply with this bizarre condition, you need to then donate a sum of money to ALS research. (4) Finally, you get to nominate three other people to join in the fun (otherwise known as “fun”). I know people who have donated to the cause and doused themselves and I must say that I’m impressed: it’s proof enough that not knowing the rules of a game isn’t necessarily going to stop people from playing.
“Don’t think, just do it! Guillotines away!”
It’s pure mimetic desire, of course. People want what others want for no other reason than that others want it. There is a kind of invitation here (“Come on, join in!”) and a kind of injunction (Join in, or else!), but I’m pretty sure it’s the injunction that ultimately wins while the invitation cowers in the corner. One could even suggest that the simpler, dumber and less self-aware the individual subject, the more likely they’ll be to fall prey to this mimetic vortex (although, as Bill Gates among others has shown us, the intelligent are not exempt from this copy-cat behaviour; we are all, after all, driven by some form of mimetic desire). And this is not necessarily a bad thing.
As the desire escalates through various viral commandments and participations, the desire of others becomes, as far as I can tell, the desire of what Lacan calls the big Other. As Hendrik Bjerre and Carsten Laustsen note in their book The subject of politics: Slavoj Žižek’s political philosophy, “Desire, in Lacan’s words, is always the desire of the Other. What I desire is first and foremost to be desired by the [O]ther … [Thus, even] the most immediate private wish is therefore always already mediated by a kind of unconscious awareness of our relations to the [O]ther.” Lacan’s big Other is different from the Girardian notion of the other in that Girard is talking about actual individuals —people with souls and wills — whereas Lacan is talking about the a kind of unconscious network of rules that governs human relations.
The Other, in Lacanian terms, is constituted by the entire symbolic realm of human productions. It is manifest not only in language but in all the various hypotheses that exert any influence upon the Subject: society, law, social mores, taboos, norms, expectations, perceptions of time, the dominant logic of the tribe, etc. The Other, then, is the place where all signifiers are stored, the treasury of semiotic interlinkages. It is, of course, ‘unconscious’ — that is, it functions like the electromagnetic field operating upon liquid crystal to form letters: it pulls signifiers into place without any force of will. The Other does not exist — it is a fiction — and yet it functions.
This Other can be equated with ideology, which Mark Lilla describes beautifully, “An ideology … holds us in its grasp with an enchanting picture of reality. To follow the optical metaphor, ideology takes an undifferentiated visual field and brings it into focus, so that objects appear in a predetermined relation to each other.” Ideology makes it possible for the individual to mirror itself in society. So, when we look at the Ice Bucket Challenge, we recognise its ideological function as follows: it is what allows people to feel like they fit; that they comply, belong, conform.
We’re all individuals here, right?
We are all unique just like everyone else.
Bjerre and Laustsen carry on: “There does not, or at least certainly doesn’t have to be, any unequivocal conspiracy (a mastermind) behind the way that ideologies work on their subjects, but they nonetheless function and subjects largely orient themselves via an imagined coherence behind the actual events in society, or to put it another way: we behave as if there were a society. There is no society but it functions nonetheless.”
And this one manifestation of ideology that we’re looking at here works as follows: Most people opt for participating in the self-dousing, which may be interpreted thus: participants have no real interest in actively putting their money where their quivering-shivering mouths are. This is not to say that money hasn’t been raised. In fact, a hell of a lot of money has been raised. Well done, world. And, yes, some kind of awareness is raised, which is great — I’m not dead-set against the charity in all of this, and I’m not even against the fun, per se. But with this awareness of the Girardian other and the Lacanian Other in mind, I hope you see that there are ideological constraints that need to be reconsidered.
In particular, there is an ideological trap built into the rules: only two real options are offered. This is the trick of every kind of spurious benevolence. The rules stipulate that you either participate by getting wet or you participate by paying up. No genuine third option is offered, although one is implied: those who don’t participate are automatically spoilsports (Their reasons and motivations are irrelevant).  I’m not sure this is a fair game, because the rules work much like a totalitarian regime works.
Apart from this forced compliance, the rules also pronounce any other social, environmental and/or economic concerns well outside of the scope of the game. In this vortex, what really matters is ALS; what really matters is participating in the game. Precisely where the money goes and how it is used is not even vaguely at issue. Everything else, including saving clean drinking water in a drought-stricken world, is irrelevant. And, naturally, thinking about any of this is implicitly prohibited by the rules, which I am hereby rebelling against. The internet flattens people; turns us all into memes.
So I hereby nominate the internet to stop nominating people.
Although, perhaps this too is unfair. One of my students pointed out to me yesterday after I gave a lecture on this subject that the Ice Bucket Challenge creates a wonderful opportunity for camaraderie and friendship building. This may be partially true, but the rules of this game, unlike a genuine friendship, seem to be beyond negotiation. Thus, inevitably, I am not taking issue with all of this joyous camaraderie, nor am I at odds with the fact that a great deal of good has come of this. And even while I find the sheer volume of banal videos and images on the internet on this viral phenomenon troubling, not even this is the main concern for me.
My main concern is that the contingent is taken as absolute; the ideology is thus rendered as an immovable object. The invitation is replaced by a rather forceful set of parameters that basically communicate that human freedom itself irrelevant. We are part of the crowd, the team, the global village. This, of course, is true, but it is only one part of the truth. And by emphasizing only a part of the truth, only part of our humanity is taken into account; and we know from history that when this sort of thing happens, we are inevitably dehumanized.

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