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The War Within, Without Psychographics

Photo by Surian Soosay | CC BY 2.0

“One way to target voters, in particular, is relevant to Cambridge Analytica: collecting information to predict people’s personality and psychology — known as psychographics”

Angela Chen and Alessandra Potenza, “Cambridge Analytica’s Facebook Date Abuse Shouldn’t Get Credit for Trump,” The Verge, March 20,

There seems little reason in a grossly divided Have and Have Not nation for our national elections to be chad counting, nail biting elections.

But the word “reason” is operative here. We do not all seem to be reasoning on the same page, or, for that matter, agree as to what, where, when, and how reason may be present.

And because reasoning and its methods seems to have left both the culture and its citizens, we need to look in Superficiem, under the surface, directing our attention to the war within which like a dream drama escapes reason right off.

If we place side by side, first, a description of economic and political realities that exist as evidence commonly accepted — call it a verified account of “conditions on the ground” — and then secondly, a description of a cultural imaginary which connects to such conditions through a lens already shaped to see in a certain way, we would be recognizing the nature of politics as it has always been. Confounding difficult but surmountable.

If, however, we cast the notion of reason and evidence into a whirlwind of personal opinion and at the same time hone the skills by which phenomenal realities can be shaped, then we have a partial view of our politics now. Add to that an illusion allowing the individual to believe that the shaping is his or her own choice, then we can fully recognize the special nature of politics now. This is a politics in which all bridges between us have vanished; all foundations upon which understanding is built have likewise vanished.

The American mass psyche is now more than ever a cultural imaginary that has fractured into a cyberspace number of personal imaginings of what is. Wittgenstein described “what is” aptly: “The world is everything that is the case. What is the case (a fact) is the existence of states of affairs. A logical picture of facts is a thought. A thought is a proposition with a sense.”

We have left that rational domain and now skirmish in a bewildering confusion of narratives of what is the case, alternative facts, and thoughts and propositions without sense.

How to describe this state of affairs when facts, logic, sense define themselves differently on different sides of the street? Or, are just plain absent in a common pursuit of meaning?

We have always lived in different framings of reality but have also struggled to establish methods of interconnection and shared understandings. It seems more suddenly than a transformation from myth to religion, the societal is eclipsed and a warring narcissism rules.

Reasons for this exist, although how we now exist has confounded any jointly accepted reasoning path or resulting conclusions.

Nevertheless, “conditions on the ground” are describable. We live in a multi-plex imaginary that mirrors the affective, pre-reflective turmoil of a society driven by a “free enterprise” economics refreshing itself by moving, regardless of real conditions, the battleground to this irrational, chthonic level of how everything “appears to me personally.”

The ceaseless “refreshing” of this clash of mindless opinionating, this sudden capacity to move reality to a level of personal determination, is a feature of an alternate reality — cyberspace —  which can post narratives of all stripes, leaving the curating to Google and the circle of “Likes” one is ensnared within. Idiots claim “alternative facts” and can find supporters because an alternative reality is awash with such. Its credibility as reality is the mother of our lunacies.

Thus, if reality is whatever we say it is and truth is what emerges from that chosen reality and we are awash with such postings then culture is likewise awash with nonsensical blather, a great deal coming now from the President of the United States. Sense is indistinguishable from such nonsense because we have lost any respect for any arbitrating or determining authority beyond our own opinionating.

This is Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty world in which what anything is to mean is what we each personally say it is to mean.

We are truly inundated with the videos and tweets of a hyperreality we confuse with “conditions of the ground.” Our capacity to critique in any objective fashion has been eroded by our preference for cyberspace. Our life in social media has eroded our talents for a level of civility that society in the real world requires. All this is obvious. Most disturbing, however, is the way our mass psyche has incorporated the online simulacra of a virtual realism and thus set us up for our present bewilderment regarding reason, reality and truth.

None of this enters our newly awakened critique of social media. Our present critique of social media has all to do with the selling of our private lives to marketers, pols and foreign governments, which is, point blank, the monetizing model of social media. The personal view that Zuckerberg et al are helping us all share our lives with each other and thus making the world more transparent, a riff on creating a direct democracy by giving everyone a voice, has always been the grifter’s sales pitch. The profits are in selling you to the manufacturers of your mind.

Social media makes it easy for you to think you are in charge while such illusions of personal autonomy tear down societal bonds always fragile at any point in our history. We long ago were subjected to the marketing and branding strategies that took possession of our values and dreams, commodifying them within the single vision of profit making.

The existence of an opposing cyber-reality is not alone in bringing us to our ludic Wonderland state, our special realm of doing politics. Social media indeed facilitates and expands the reach of our winner take all economics but so too does the money of the winners. “Money is speech,” Citizens United, and the lobbying and legislative power of a wealth class convert democratic political play into plutocracy. Great wealth translates into spin and narrative power, that is, a shaping power, set on preserving and protecting an arrangement that suits them.

It is not difficult for extreme wealth to assert its will in a society in which money talks and a lot of money talks the loudest. When spectacle and spin compete online and offline to reality construct, the winners are always those who own, directly or indirectly, the spectacle and spin making tool box.

The credibility of cyberspace as an alternate to the real world, the “Great Outdoors,” and the axiomatic, rapaciousness of our economics are, you could say, proactive forces eroding a rational consensus which alone can nurture society and the societal impulses of its citizens. These are present forces but there are defenses that are also being diminished and re-directed toward profit. Education stands out as most notable.

A goal of weakening and dismantling public education so as to replace it with privatized, corporate profit-making education has left us with a populace easily “taken in by appearances,” as Machiavelli phrased it:

A goal to teach a populace to read and write has never been a goal of those whose power rests on inequities. An economics hoping to grow by eliminating labor costs through AI and robots eliminates also the need for educated workers. What purpose education is left to play in a corporate mission is as a new marketing, profit making frontier.

We are in that transitional phase from public to private right now, specifically the phase where public education is weakened and then demolished from every angle. That demolition of public education has been going on long enough for us to create the dominion of a tweeting and Fox & Friendslevel of discourse.

We see then that the economic collapse of the middle class, where less than 40% of us are now middle class compared with 70% in the 1970s, joins with the collapse of public education to produce a segment of the population vulnerable because of their decreasing economic status but also because they cannot adequately confront the morass of spin and spectacle, the unrealities of hyperreality that now comprise American culture.

In short, we cannot interpret in any cogent and productive way the mess into which our so-called knowledge, ideas and talent-based economy has placed us. But it is the psychological residue of anxiety and disappointment, fear and an anger that rise in response that has come forward in the voting booth.

This angst and anger results from real socio-economic rejection, which is what our “free enterprise” axiomatically has accomplished, but also from its own expression of both in a “social” media that is in reality no more than a prison house of one’s own confusion, a platform where “as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight/… ignorant armies clash by night.” (“Dover Beach”)

It is on this level of psychomachia, a drama of clash within the human psyche, that we can find some explanation as to why so many voted for Trump in 2016 and may do so again in 2020. There is a real anger at much in our psychomachia but much more than anger that stands alongside this age of spectacle, of hyperreal celebrity that draws magnetically, not on any rational, conscious level, but deep in the American cultural imaginary of Trump supporters.

Trump supporters were more economically advantaged, on average, than Hillary’s supporters in the 2016 presidential election were. The median income for Trump voters was $72,000 while the median income for Hillary voters was $61,000. The dividend recipient class raised the median income for Trump supporters, which means both wealthy Democrats and Republicans voted for Trump because he represented in their view a better chance for stock market growth than did Hillary. The abused and mocked “Deplorables” were the smokescreen to hide the fact that money, not ideology, creates party allegiance. And that wealth connection spans across both parties.

If you factor out the Trumpians who voted their stock portfolios, what is left may have gone to Trump for jobs. Or they may have relished the political incorrectness, a euphemism, he proudly displayed. This does not exonerate those who went to Trump for a kick to their portfolios. All manner of haters span the Have and Have Not worlds. The darker dimensions of hate have much to do with excising “brownness” or at least diminishing the role Liberals who seem intent on making the country “brown and gay.” A xenophobia, residing as deep in the American mass psyche as guns, cars and football, is antagonized by a Liberal campaign to form a politics of “giveaways”  to all the marginalized, of whatever stamp.

Trump openly courts this xenophobia, which spills into racism in the same covert fashion as it, does in the culture as a whole. But xenophobia and racism range across all of American culture, which tells us that there are cultural factors that overwrite these, conditions that subdue and displace these. Our cultural inner battle is not one evenly divided between Haters and Lovers, Abusers and Nurturers, Deplorables and Snowflakes.

What we observe is a way of life that certain geographical segmented elites have adopted, that gentrifiers include in their gentrifying package, that Nimbyism excludes from its exclusionary wishes. This life style makes racism, homophobia, misogyny, and xenophobia unattractive and common. Being opposed to LGBTQ rights or the outings of #MeToo in the court of public opinion or deaf to the circumstances of the Dreamers and so on is a sign of a lifestyle not bespoke but vulgar.

There are a growing number of indicators of gentrified class in the U.S., that is, everything that is available to flout as an accessory to success. The genius, so to speak, here lies in a refinement of an acquisitive sensibility. In a materialist, consumer/consumption oriented culture the red flags of status of course reside in what George Carlin called “stuff.” What makes these elite different from any historical elite is its affiliation with whatever group or cause is at the moment in need of support, such objects of humanitarian concern running in and out of the headlines like new outbursts of technology.

The liberal vow to serve people and not profit attracts the new elite, joining with liberals in resisting the single force of profit but not the underlying economics that has led to our plutocratic order.

One of the problems with such an allegiance based on lifestyle discriminations is its superficiality and thus its fickleness. The refinements of family life, neighborhood, social relations, shopping protocols, brand and label erudition and so on grounded on nothing more than six figure salaries, earned by each in some mated arrangement, may not be sufficient to retain a status Nietzsche gives to humans: more humane than the gods.

I don’t know what kind of distinction can be made between President Trump’s disdain for all those living in “shitholes” and the exclusionary/gate keeping practices the gentrifiers must establish in order to retain their special status. There is a sad, lamenting root to the word “deplorable,” a bewailing over what we have given up for lost. Gentrification, the praxis of plutocracy, exhibits nothing of this. It is an elitist disdain that fills the history of Europe up to the French Revolution. You can easily find it now in full invasion mode in, for example, Brooklyn, the “new Paris.”

President Trump falls on the side of the tacky and vulgar, the uncurated life that too obviously points to wealth as access to power. How much money you have is the “that which shall not be named” among the top 20% gentrified class. Trump is boorish and tasteless  in his display of wealth, in his manners, his speech, his ties, coat, hair. This offends more than his tax cuts to the wealthy.

Resistance then targets him personally rather more heatedly than do his policies, which see saw between liberal and neoliberal affinities (he plays the crowd like a good huckster) or his ideology, which is nothing more than pursuit of self-interest and a need for adulation which he fires up daily with his tweets.

The wealth divide is an economic divide axiomatically generated by an economic system destructive of any level of egalitarianism. It is close to a fifty year divide, time enough for us to observe the results in a culture where once again, as in the Civil War, neither side can understand, and more disastrously, imagine how the other side lives.  Time enough for us to see clearly the war within.

We can locate our pro-Trump/anti-Trump divide as a cultural problem and it is that. But the roots of this fracturing of a fragile civil order lies in the machinery of an economics that our politics, including both parties, does not see it in their interests to challenge. We seem to be rapidly losing our ability to describe our disastrous departure from what Wittgenstein describes as “what is” as well as describe our collapse into a cultural imaginary of dark irrationalities.

We are here, then, at a tipping point, a threshold, as we are as a species hoping to survive our devastation of this planet, this “Great Outdoors,” victim of our war within.

 

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Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Travels of a New Gulliver.

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