politics of the hap

All that is Solid Melts into Air

The disintegration of Rupert Murdoch’s Empire has somehow opened us all up to the real ambiguity we face

Murdoch's face is certainly seeing signs of disintegration...

The News of the World/Murdoch saga has captured the imagination of the public in a way that I for one didn’t quite understand intially. Yet as the story unravels I too have found myself fascinated. This is because it is, in many ways, the story that people have been waiting for. This past year has seen Wikileaks bring groundbreaking news to the public attention. Masses of information, but so massive it was almost impossible to digest it all. The phone hacking scandal on the other hand provides an ideal exempler of what wikileaks has done: to uncover the deeply tied links between the elites that govern our society. It has revealed relationships between government, police, media, in a way we all suspected, and for those who have ever read Adorno & Horkheimer had all strongly believed. The phone hacking scandal also, and most crucially, has begun to open the eyes of the (quote/unquote) average citizen by reaching them in a way that the vast US cables uncovered by wikileaks for example, or even the financial crash and recession, could not quite do.

It is as yet hard to say whether this development is positive or negative, yet it is possible to say that commentators are now clearly acknowledging the precipice we are currently in. Since beginning this blog at the start of the year there has emerged an unintended recurring theme about an increased sense of ambiguity that is plaguing the life I observe around me. This is a generational feature, no doubt, yet I am inclined to feel this ambiguity is also something that implicates all ages and people in Britain today (and beyond). Attending the recent Slavoj Zizek and Julian Assange discussion in London, this sentiment was reiterated by both. Personally I have been finding lines written by Marshall Berman in his seminal text ‘All that is Solid Melts into Air’ returning and revolving in my head. Re-read the following for example, as if Berman was writing about contemporary Britain:

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face . . . the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men

Berman famously quotes Marx, further expanding on his ideas as Berman provides a definitive account of the experience of modernity on economic, social, cultural and personal levels. A re-reading of Berman can remind us that those relations we believed to so ‘fixed’ were quickly ‘frozen’ and so can just as swiftly be swept away, as this is the very nature of the modern era in which we live. Now we find ourselves in a moment in which all that is solid (Murdoch’s empire/emblem of capitalist greed) is steadily crumbling away, we are facing the uncomfortable task of dealing with the ‘real’ conditions of our lives.

As blogger potlatch notes, in reference to the phone hacking scandal:

The ruptures and speed of recent events removes the various technical certainties that otherwise structure decision-making processes and provide orientation for elites. When these are removed, the reality that there is a public at large looms over politics, but so does its incapacity to speak or act (not least due to Britain’s under-democratised society).

As potlatch identifies, the phone hacking scandal has brought the question of the ‘public’ or ‘public interest’ to the fore but instead of a public emerging into view there is only the question where and who is this unified public? Potlatch acknowledges that ‘something new is emerging’ yet he points out that while these are events unfolding in public life, there is no tangible public to speak of, and further we would not know what this public would look like if it did. Similiarly as K-Punk identifies:

A manageable level of cynicism about the media actually serves the capitalist realist media system well. Since the media stands in for the public sphere, if journalists and politicians are perceived to be “all liars”, as they widely are, then there is no hope to be had in public life at all.

If we agree the media stands in for the lack of a tangible public sphere in modern Britain, and that media is being dismantled before our eyes, we can begin to understand the cause behind our uncomfortable fascination with the phone hacking scandal. Our collective public voice has merged into the opinion of the media we consume and now without the guidance of Murdoch to make our minds up for us, what opinion will we choose? While something is indeed is emerging, something too is being lost.

In these ambiguous times, collectivities have attempted to merge in what could be understood as an attempt to bring forth the voice and face of a tangible public. For example the student protests were a rare opportunity to see other people, a public, with shared interests, hopes and beliefs. But to what extent are these collectivities real or imaginary? As potlatch questions:

I would suggest that this newly active ‘public’ is both real and imaginary at the same time, in that imagined entities (such as nations) become decisive at times of crisis.Equally, right now, we are seeing the same political elites, economic interests, political parties and media outlets taking key decisions, but invoking some mystical notion of ‘the public’. To witness that this ‘public’ is partly imagined is not, necessarily, to dismiss it as fake, merely that is hasn’t been assembled either.

The student protests collected together a marginal group of people which ultimately were deemed as not sharing ‘public opinion’. With the phone hacking scandal, the lines of wronged and right are made far clearer. As potlatch notes the notion of ‘the public’ and its interests is being invoked in the face of the loss of the public sphere via the disenchantment of the media that K-Punk identified. This notion of the public is being invoked on ‘our’ behalf, it is up to us to assemble ourselves appropriately.

We should be mindful to remember however the transitory nature of the public sphere and the collectivities we may form. Going back to Berman:

Modern environments and experiences cut across all boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology: in this sense, modernity can be said to unite all mankind. But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity: it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, “all that is solid melts into air.”

Modernity by its very nature is paradoxical, the sense of perpetual disintegration propels us toward the desire to rid ourselves of the ambiguity we feel and the struggles we face, and yet this surge toward development only creates a new stability which eventually will reach its own demise. Crises can easily become opportunities for the renewal of power or strengthening of ideology, rather than the possibility of an alternative vision.

The repetitive nature of modernity in the way Berman is depicting can appear infinitely cyclical and inescapable. Yet he still maintains the contradictions of modernity hold real possibilities:

In spite of all, thrown together by the same forces that pull us apart, dimly aware of all we might be together, ready to stretch ourselves to grasp new human possibilities, to develop identities and mutual bonds that can help us hold together as the fierce modern air blows hot and cold through us all.

What Marx can show us is that modernity is subject to change and influence and in that lies the seeds of potential. We are not destined to repeat the same patterns over and over, but if we carry on with the attempt to simply attempt to adapt or add to capitalism we will find our efforts come to nothing. Further, maintaining a belief in the permanence of a movement will also lead to failure:

In this world, stability can only mean entropy, slow death, while our sense of progress and growth is our way of knowing for sure that we are alive. To say that our society is falling apart is only to say that it is alive and well.

We must move with the flows of this ambiguity rather than striving to overcome and defeat it with rational ambitions. The disintegration we witness is cause for alarm, yes, but it is also, as Berman highlights, a symptom of a public that is alive. This is a moment in which to utilize this vitality and to decide whether this destabilization can be directed toward positive or negative ends. K-Punk ends on a positive note, commenting on the upbeat tone of Julian Assange in his discussion with Zizek:

As Assange said on Saturday- and as Dan Hind also argues in The Return of the Public – the function of corporate media has been to isolate people, to make them distrust their discontent with a world controlled by business interests. What has combated this is the production of new collectivities of dissent, both online and in the streets. What we’re seeing in this extraordinary moment of transition is a reality management system imploding from within at the same time as it is being undermined from outside. And, this is only the beginning – you haven’t seen anything yet.

To hear Assange speak such positive words did feel empowering, and there does indeed feel as if there is an increasing amount of belief in the potential of ambiguity. Yet stale mate (or worse OhDearism) is equally possible. And it is this inability to seize the moment which remains the real danger of the uncertainty we face:

Grave danger is everywhere, and may strike at any moment, but not even the deepest wounds can stop the flow and overflow of its energy. It is ironic and contradictory, polyphonic and dialectical, denouncing modern life in the name of values that modernity itself has created, hoping – often against hope – that the modernities of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow will heal the wounds that wreck the modern men and women of today.

As Berman so eloquently outlines, only when embracing and accepting the reality of the dangers of ambiguity can there be real hope of transformation. This is not a comfortable process, but as Berman and Marx can teach us, stability is an illusion of capitalism. A very clever illusion that has kept people satiated with their flat screen TVs, humungous Tescos, and News of the World tabloids. The cracks have appeared in this happy delusion, but will it be the catalyst for an unstoppable force, or will the ruptures be sewed back together with rhetoric and empty apologies, with a bit happiness-ideology or similar to ease the transit? What modernity do we want tomorrow? I think it is time we sat down and started to draw up a diagram of what that looked like before this fleeting moment melts away from us, as swiftly as it materialized.