MANUFACTURING CONSENT – NOAM CHOMSKY AND THE MEDIA, Mark Archbar and Peter Wintonick, 1992

It’s not the case as the naïve might think that democracy is inconsistent with indoctrination. In a state in which you can control the population by force – a feudal state, a military run state, or what we nowadays call a totalitarian state – it really doesn’t matter very much what people believe or what they think because you’ve got a bludgeon over their head and you can control what they do. They obey. But when the state loses the bludgeon and when you lose the capacity (in a democracy) to coerce people by force and when the voice of the people can be heard, you’ve got to make sure it says the right thing. Therefore, you need techniques of manufacture of consent, and propaganda, and thought-control, and indoctrination. (Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky)

Peter Wintonick and Mark Archbar’s Manufacturing Consent is a 1992 documentary film about the life and thought of Noam Chomsky, and specifically his thoughts on the political economy of the media. The film avoids conventional documentary features – voiceover narration, chronological exposition – favouring instead a dialectical approach both in terms of form and content. This means that Chomsky is presented largely in debate and interviews, and the juxtaposition of those against whom he is pitted is judicious, telling, and often entertaining. In an interview with William Buckley Jnr, for example, he admits that he is wont to lose his temper on such occasions. The sleek Buckley imperiously warns him not to adding, “If you did, I’d smash you in the Goddamn face” – Ivy League arrogance mobilised to put the upstart Jewish subversive in his place.

Philosophically, Chomsky’s thesis about the encroachment of media propaganda into every avenue of political, social, and cultural life with their creation of what he calls “necessary illusions” that maintain the dominance of particular elite groups, carries echoes from Adorno and Horkheimer’s account in The Dialectic of Enlightenment concerning the mass media empires of the culture industry and their tendencies toward rationalization, standardization, and conformity which they interpreted as a consequence of the triumph of the instrumental rationality that was coming to pervade and structure ever more aspects of life. Thus, they argued, while culture once cultivated individuality, it was now promoting submission, and was a crucial part of “the totally administered society” that was producing “the end of the individual.” For Chomsky, as he meticulously details through a fusillade of facts, media corporations are concerned less with producing “the end of the individual” than they are with producing the end of any feeling of solidarity or community or organized resistance against the agenda that they set.

One could argue that the genealogy of Chomsky’s notions can be traced further back to Marx’s analyses about the relations of production. Society for Marx is the sum total of social relations connecting its members. Market forces appear to regulate everything, but what is really behind those market forces has become obscured because the social relationship between people or their relation with nature is expressed as a commercial relationship between things (money, commodities, and capital). Commerce not only introduces a proliferation of relationships between tradeable ‘things,’ but commercial relations also begin to govern and regulate the pattern and techniques of human contact. Media corporations, as they increasingly narrow into global conglomerates, distil these patterns and techniques to such an extent that human contact appears locked into a capitalist doctrine. Media exchange, much like commodity exchange, objectifies social relations to the point where they escape from conscious human control, and exist such that they can be recognized only by abstract thought. Again, the clear result is that any notion of solidarity or community suffers.

Chomsky’s ideas also have parallels with Foucault’s notion of knowledge/power discourses and the manner in which social structures and the dominant tendencies within them come to formulate the prevailing ideological standards of any given period. In effect, what one deems to be truth or valid knowledge is based upon the discourse of that time; epistemology is reduced to power relations. Thus, discourses within the established media will always lead the way to instantiating a particular worldview, a particular knowledge geared towards their particular (elite) interests; towards ‘manufacturing consent’ about the validity of their truth claims. Indeed, Manufacturing Consent contains a brief scene in which Chomsky participates in a debate with Foucault entitled “Justice versus Power,” which highlights not just the parallels between them but also their differences.

It is interesting that when faced with the kind of precise, surgical evidence that Chomsky provides against the media organisations that he critiques, spokespersons for the latter often fall back on weak institutional arguments, or the well-worn tactic of dismissing any dissenting voice as merely a lunatic ‘conspiracy theorist.’ This tactic is particularly favoured by the New York Times journalists in their response to Chomsky’s overwhelming data about their and the rest of the mainstream American media’s silence over the genocidal invasion of East Timor by Indonesia (aided and abetted by the U.S government), as opposed to the clamorous outcry and the many column inches afforded to the Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia.

If Part One of Manufacturing Consent illustrates selected Chomskyan ideas on American media, Part Two looks for alternative media networks and finds a host of print media, local radio, and TV stations in the States that are resisting the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN media hegemony. It also features a telling sequence filmed at George Bush Senior’s Presidential inauguration ceremony. To the accompaniment of Bush’s metallic drone in his Presidential address the camera threads through the crowds and away across the rooftops until it rests on the backstreet clusters of satellite media vans, as if to show whether the real power lies.

Bash Khan

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WAKING LIFE, Richard Linklater, 2001


Waking Life
is an animated story about a nameless young man, played by Wiley Wiggins, who finds himself trapped in a continuous series of dreams. He moves from one scene to another, listening to a wide array of theories that range from the sublime to the ridiculous from a varied cast of philosophers, intellectuals, and crackpots. The text to the film states that: “Waking Life features a complex interweaving of conversations with professors, artists, writers and performers. There is no single theory behind the film. Rather the film is an exploration from many points of view of past and current trends in philosophy.”

As a result the content is ostensibly anecdotal. In effect, much of the film hangs on whether one feels that the anecdotes work or not, and this means that it has a propensity to infuriate and obfuscate as much as it has to enlighten or to entertain.

Director Richard Linklater states in commentary that all of the ideas expressed in the film should be accessible to viewers, even though the dialogue is conceptually dense. Many of the exchanges in the film were generated from the actual views of the professionals or intellectuals who appear.

The film explores questions about personal identity and the nature of consciousness and asks whether we can ever section off definitively the meanings that we apportion to our waking life and give them priority over the meanings we apportion to our dreams?

This gives rise to a whole host of philosophical questions that are addressed throughout the film. Some of these questions are outlined below and can be found in full through the following link:
http://www.philfilms.utm.edu/1/waking.htm.
Please ignore these questions if you feel you want to watch the film without the burden of any prior commentary. Alternatively, you may want to keep these questions in mind as a general guide whilst you watch the film. The choice is yours.

1. The man in the boat/car states that his vehicle is a window to the world, in which every moment is a show. He glides along, remaining in a state of constant departure, while always arriving. The ride, he states, does not require an explanation, only occupants. This scenario parallels Hume’s problem of personal identity: our identities seem to consist of fleeting perceptions. Hume was troubled by this problem and felt that our minds in fact construct a more lasting notion of the self. The boat/car man, though, seems to live out Hume’s worst fears. What’s so bad about how the boat/car man approaches life?

2. Wiley attends a philosophy lecture by real life philosophy professor Robert Solomon, at the University of Texas at Austin. Solomon is lecturing on existentialism, presenting it optimistically as a philosophy of creative freedom. After class Solomon tells Wiley that he disagrees with postmodernist philosophy since it views humans as social constructions, the mere confluence of forces, fragmented, and marginalized. This gives people excuses for their behaviour. Existentialists, on the other hand, feel that we are responsible for our actions, and this responsibility stems from human freedom. We should not, Solomon argues, see ourselves as victims of various forces. Do we really need notions of freedom to give us a sense of responsibility?

3. Wiley visits the home of Kim Krizan, a screenwriter who discusses the nature of language as a system of signs. The fact that we can create words that refer to tangible things, such as a tree, is not really remarkable. What is remarkable, she explains, is how words convey abstract concepts such as love or frustration. When we say these words, and people understand us, it amounts to a kind of spiritual communion. That feeling might be transient, but, she thinks, it is what we live for. Is the conveying of abstract notions as rewarding as she contends?

4. Wiley visits Eamonn Healy, Chemistry professor at Austin. Healy discusses human evolution and the values that are associated with it: parasitism, dominance, morality, war, and predation. In this scheme “the individual is at the whim of the collective.” He then states that we are beginning a new kind of evolution, which involves bio-technology (artificial intelligence, neuro-biology), which will occur much more rapidly, and involve a new set of values: truth, loyalty, justice, freedom. Here the individual becomes more valuable in its own right. Healy seems to be somewhat optimistic about futuristic human-robot life forms. Are there some grounds for his optimism?

5. The man who sets himself on fire argues that society hasn’t given us an opportunity to voice our opinions beyond the rather meaningless voting process. He feels this way in particular since his particular message is destruction and chaos. The issue isn’t one of censorship but of audience access. What’s so important about having an audience for our opinions, especially if we’re ignored – just as bystanders ignored him as he was burning to death?

6. The couple lying in bed together discuss a version of Chuang-tzu’s dream paradox: a man dreams he’s a butterfly, but he might really be a butterfly dreaming that he’s a man. The young woman thinks that her waking life might be the memories of an old woman in the last moments of her life. The young man suggests that recent studies of the brain activity of sleeping or dying people show that a lifetime of experiences can be condensed into a few actual minutes of activity. If this is true, does this make the “all is a dream” hypothesis any more compelling?

7. The couple also discuss the notion of collective memory, a view articulated by Rupert Sheldrake, which involves a large pool of knowledge that we all draw from. The young man states that this would explain seemingly spontaneous world-wide innovative leaps in science and the arts, prompted by people working independently of each other. “Once the answers are out there, we can all pick up on them; it’s like we’re all telepathically sharing our experiences.” Is there a more simple explanation to such world-wide innovative leaps?

8. Wiley visits UT Austin philosophy professor David Sosa, who argues that there’s not much room for free will. Classic philosophers believed that God set things up in advance. More contemporary philosophers maintain that humans are just a system of molecules. The big bang set up the initial conditions, and our human lives are just the playing out of the subatomic particles. This picture, he argues, threatens the idea that humans have a special dignity. Does determinism necessarily undermine human dignity?

9. Sosa argues that the indeterminacy of atomic particles does not give us a model for acting free: this at best explains random behaviour. Sosa says that he’d rather be a gear in a big deterministic machine than some random swerving in a probabilistic system. What are the grounds for deciding either way?

10. Libertarian talk show host Alex Jones appears driving through the city speaking through a PA system mounted on his car. He argues that we are being conditioned on a mass scale to give up our freedoms, which society does by making us feel powerless. Instead, Jones argues, we should embrace the “creativity and the dynamic human spirit that refuses to submit.” Is this too simplistic? Is it ever worth giving up some of our creative freedom in exchange for security?

11. English professor Lisa Moore sits in a restaurant with author Carole Dawson discussing the problem of human identity over time. They discuss a theory by Benedict Anderson that we need to construct a story in order to connect, for example, a photograph of ourselves as an infant with who we are now. Anderson seems to have in mind fictional stories that we create. Suppose that I attempt to create a fictional story about my past in which I would be the forgotten heir to the British throne. Wouldn’t historical reality keep my fictional account in check?

12. The monkey in the classroom expresses the views of Steve Fitch, a photographer and musician. According to Fitch, art is the language that humans created to distance ourselves from our empty and degraded human past and reach for a new world. Is art progressive in this manner, or is it just as easily a tool that can be used for regression?

13. The second half of the film, which focuses on lucid dreams, explores the philosophical issue of appearance/reality; much the same way that Descartes in the Meditations raises the question of whether he is dreaming. One character argues that, “to the functional system of neural activity that creates our world, there is no difference between dreaming a perception and an action, and actually the waking perception and action.” Descartes raised the issue as a matter of theoretical doubt about the real world. Does the above scientific theory make the dreaming/waking problem any less theoretical?

14. A gang of intellectuals roam the streets, spouting philosophical one-liners. They see an old man who was on a telephone pole for no apparent reason. One of the gang comments “he’s no worse than us; he’s all action and no theory, and we’re all theory and no action.” Is there any way to determine what the best balance is between theory and action?

15. Wiley bumps into a red-haired women in a stairwell, who laments that people behave like they’re part of an ant colony – acting out of efficiency and politeness – with no real human engagement. D.H. Lawrence calls such engagement the confrontation between souls. This also parallels Martin Buber’s distinction between I-It and I-Thou relationships. As with Buber’s theory, we can ask this woman: do we really want to live in a society in which all of our encounters with people involve genuine human engagement?

16. Poet Timothy “Speed” Levitch meets with Wiley on a bridge and states that self-awareness consists of discovering that one is a dream figure in another person’s dream. Taken literally, this has implications for Wiley’s current dilemma. For the rest of us, who are not dreaming, what is the more metaphorical meaning of Levitch’s point?

17. Wiley’s last encounter in the film is with a man playing pinball who relates a theory by Philip K. Dick (author of Blade Runner and Total Recall) that it’s really 50 AD, but there’s an evil spiritual force trying to make us forget that the kingdom of God is immanent. Time, according to Dick, is just a continuous distraction. He then relates a variation of Dick’s theory that he once had in a dream: the year that we’re stuck in is not really 50 AD; instead, there is only one instant, and in this instant God is asking us whether we want to be one with eternity. Time, then, is just our constant saying “no” to God’s invitation. Do these theories have any merit beyond their initial shock value?

Bash Khan

PRIMER, Scott Carruth, 2004


Primer
is a 2004 American science fiction film about the discovery of a means of time travel. The principal characters are two engineers who accidentally create a device which allows an object or person to travel backward in time. The pair is ultimately unable to resist the temptation of using their machine to meddle with nearly every aspect of their own lives. This in turn creates increasingly complex problems which begin to dismantle their relationship with each other as well as with their sense of self.

Primerexamines the philosophical issues of chaos theory and how inventions can’t be divorced from human frailties, both mental and physical. It attempts to deal with the paradoxes of time travel: what happens when there are two (or more) conflicting versions of the future?

Furthermore, that within the same period of time there are different versions of the same person, Primer also raises disturbing questions about the metaphysics of identity. What does it mean if there is an infinite number of each of the characters, all facing a universe slightly different? Simplicity and common sense may rebel against such principles but serious versions of such metaphysics have been produced to deal with quantum mechanics and multiple real universes have been proposed by David Lewis to explain possibility and necessity.

At its heart, Primer also serves to ask ethical questions about the implications of scientific innovation: the power that such innovation can yield; the manipulation of events and the manufacture of changing causal patterns; and perhaps most importantly, the effects that each of these elements has on interpersonal relationships. As the director Scott Carruth points out, he intended the central theme of the film to be the dynamics of the relationship between the two protagonists, and specifically their inability morally to cope with the newfound power afforded them by their technological advancement:

“First thing, I saw these guys as scientifically accomplished but ethically, morons. They never had any reasons before to have ethical questions. So when they’re hit with this device they’re blindsided by it. The first thing they do is make money with it. They’re not talking about the ethics of altering your former self.”

Bash Khan

 

FUNNY GAMES, Michael Haneke, 2007

“Should we enjoy being manipulated?”

Michael Haneke first made Funny Games in 1997, in Austria, in the German language; he re-made it shot-for-shot in 2007, in America, in English.

As Stanley Cavell points out in The World Viewed, cinema is simultaneously a hiding place which absolves us from the moral responsibility that the outside world (the world outside the cinema theatre), engages us in, and the very place which informs our moral reasoning about that outside world. Cinema, in its symbolically voyeuristic darkened room (darkening the world outside and creating a new world inside to escape to), has primed audiences into accepting an idealistic totality that resolves its own problems.

This tension is at the heart of Funny Games. For Haneke, movies are preoccupied with hiding (their artifice, their technical manipulations), and wherever there is hiding, things must be held suspect. Thus, Haneke wants us to meet head-on the way we participate in the world that we view in the cinema theatre or on our TV screens. He does this in two specific ways. Firstly, he deploys a modernist reflexivity that allows the spectator an enhanced position of knowledge about the cinematic medium, and secondly, and far more abruptly, he takes a direct and aggressive approach towards the spectator, which attempts, as he so bluntly puts it to “rape the viewer into autonomy” – by confronting them directly with their own complicity in the illusion of cinematic production as an escapist entertainment.

Haneke draws on our familiarity with generic conventions in certain paradigmatic scenarios from suspense thrillers. Both the form and the content of the film play on this familiarity. By twisting those generic markers out of shape, Haneke provides a paradigm shift in that the expectations of the spectator become far more confused than they would be in the conventional stereotypes of any genre film. One of the ways in which Funny Games provokes an alternative emotional response to that arising from the use of generic conventions is by subverting the pleasure of thrill; by frustrating the moment of catharsis and replacing it with an aesthetic of consequence and a concomitant experience of discomfort, making the spectator aware of the suffering that results from the violence that the suspense thriller inevitably displays.

As a result of this discomfort not only is the spectator confronted with the realisation of his or her status as a voyeur, but also with a question that dominates ethical inquiry, and particularly Kantian ethics, “What ought I to do?” More specifically, in Funny Games the spectator finds themself watching scenes that prompt the question, “Ought I to be watching this?” In considering this, the spectator finds themself engaged in a process of moral deliberation.

Bash Khan