Sophie’s Selfie and the Disease of Mass Culture

A parody of Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World."

A parody of Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World.”

Francis Parker Yockey, a Jewish Philosopher, and an Iranian Cleric walk into a bar….

Okay, but seriously, what would a post-WWII far right lawyer, a member of the Frankfurt School, and an Iranian Cleric have in common?  Each of these people are opposed to mass culture and its destabilizing dangers, and last week’s release of the iPhone 6 begs for a cultural critique.

Theodor Adorno (born Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund) was a member of The Frankfurt School but is most well remembered for his critique of mass culture.  Yockey is most well remembered for writing Imperium, and also for his resurgence of influence within the American far-right activist community.  And then there’s Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi.  He’s one of Iran’s highest clerical authorities, and is most well known for having issued a fatwa against the Internet

No, this is not satire. A rough translation of Shirazi’s fatwa (courtesy of Google web page translation) gives the rough strokes.

“to secure and protect their users against the moral and psychological damage this type of service, including access to information, videos and photos from immoral and inhuman, rumors and seduction, spying and undermining the foundations of the family … The service plan is required in our country still lacks ‘cultural attachment'”

Shirazi is opposed to modern high-speed wireless services because of how easily that it would allow his people to access illicit information.  Iranians can likely still access whatever divergent and subversive material that they please but they’ll be stuck doing it somewhere between 56kbps dial-up and coffee shop WiFi speed.  Shirazi is most concerned about how an unmitigated flood of mass culture could disturb the pre-existing socio-cultural standards and norms.  He would probably be opposed to any version the iPhone because of its subversive potential, but with reduced access speeds the iPhone 6 probably wouldn’t be of much use in the first place.

Yockey doesn’t specifically cover which kinds of technology should be restricted, or what it’s proper role in society is.  With much of his work in Imperium you have to read between the lines to know what kind of technology he would restrict.  It’s not specifically correct to say that he restrict any technology, only the people who have access to it.  The absolute lowest rung of people who might responsibly use technology are those to whom the Culture Idea are transmitted.

“[The people to whom the Culture Idea is transmitted are] the vast numbers of human beings who possess any refinement whatever, who maintain a certain standard of honor or morality, who take care of their property, who have self-respect and respect the rights of others, who aspire to improve themselves and their situation instead of pulling down those who have enriched their inner life and raised themselves in the world. They are the body of the Culture vis-à-vis the Culture-bearing stratum as its brain, and the Idea as its soul.”

The Underworld is bottom-rung to this stratum of people.  Because we know how the receivers of the Cultural Idea will use technology we can know how the Underworld will use (should I say abuse?) the technology that passes down to them.  No technology or new technological creation is inherently bad, there are only bad uses.  The worst case scenario for Yockey would be that powerful new forms of technology with far-reaching social-political-cultural implications be given to the least savory members of our society, the Underworld.

Don’t believe me?  Watch how obnoxiously that people use cell phones.  Cell phones disturb simple and sacred moments alike.  There is nothing anywhere that is too sacred or revered to be violated by custom ring tones, and photo or video recording.  There is no inherent conflict between the concept of a revered space and a cell phone.  The conflict is that the Underworld is finding new ways to profane culturally significant spaces and objects for selfish or self-centered interests.  At a certain point of time in the future you will find cell phones in the same category of trashiness as tanning booths.  It’s not because the technology is bad, but because it is abused to the point of comedic ridiculousness.

This self-centered or self-interested behavior is not limited to any one political camp.  Remember the Auschwitz Selfie Girl,  9/11 Selfie Boy, Pope Selfie, and the Queen Selfie?  Whatever significance that you attach to these people and places (and they are undeniably significant for different cultural reasons) you have to admit that there is something deeply offensive about at least one of these situations.  If none of those examples work then consider something more close to home.  The next time that you attend a baptism watch for how many people are taking pictures and video.  The last one I attended felt a distinct lack of sacredness because nearly half of the church was holding a cell phone out to photograph and video-record the entire moment.

Technology does not necessarily improve our lives.  The only thing that technology will guarantee is that it will make our lives harder, or at the very least more complicated.  It takes a very long time for people to learn how to use new technologies responsibly.  Adorno was most concerned with how televisual culture turned all forms of art into cheap commodities, and there is no reason to think that this critique does not also apply to cell phones.

“The lack of distance, the parody of fraternity and solidarity has surely contributed to the extraordinary popularity of the new medium.  Commercial television avoids everything that might recall, no matter how vaguely, the cultic origins of the work of art, its celebration of particular occasions. … It is hardly too far-fetched to suppose that, inversely, reality is viewed through the filter of the television screen, that the meaning given quotidian life on the screen is reflected back upon everyday life itself.”

Televisual culture and the associated viewing habits or lifestyles are a negative to society because of the cold distance that it puts between viewers and the art or event.  This is not simply a dumbing-down of society, it is a depressing of society.  Technology is scary at times, it does have significant negative effects, and new technological creations for the sake of innovation is not inherently good.  There are some ways out of the technology trap, and Shirazi’s internet fatwa against the internet is not in disagreement with Adorno’s recommendation for intervention.

“If the ideology, which avails itself of a truly modest number of endlessly repeated ideas and tricks, were taken down a peg or two, then perhaps the public could develop an aversion to being led around by the nose, no matter how much the ideology gratifies the dispositions — themselves produced by the societal totality — of innumerable viewers.  It would then be possible to imagine a kind of inoculation of the public against the ideology propagated by television and its related media.”

It is not possible to keep potentially dangerous and subversive forms of technology away from the Underworld.  It’s not even possible to stop the creation of those kinds of technology.  The best that we can hope for is that our Culture Bearing spectrum and our own Cultural Elect will work to slow the diffusion of disruptive and subversive technologies while they teach the Underworld how to more responsibly use the kinds of technology that we have.  If you’re reading this on your iPhone 6, please feel free to share it, but for the love of all that is good please don’t respond with a selfie.


Ezra Pound's Ghost

“our Culture Bearing spectrum and our own Cultural Elect” – Doesn’t exist. It has to be created first. Certainly there are culture-bearing individuals – but they are not yet federated into any kind of stratum or elect.

Thomas Buhls

I think Yockey would disagree that the Culture Bearing spectrum has to be specifically created. He treats the Culture Bearing spectrum as wholly unquantifiable and unobservable.

“The Culture-Bearing stratum, articulated into creators and appreciators, is invisible as such. It corresponds to no economic class, no social class, no nobility, no aristocracy, no occupation. Its members are not all public figures by any means. But by its existence, this stratum actualizes a High Culture on this earth.” (_Imperium_, “Articulation of a Culture”)

If I’m reading Yockey correctly, and I’m open to debate on this point, he says that even after a “long period of chaos” that within one or two generations the Culture organ would return, and that it would even use invaders and outsiders to manifest the Culture Idea.

“… this Cultural organ would have been again present, including in its numbers descendants of the invaders, who would also succumb to the Idea.” (_Imperium_, “Articulation of Culture”)

The really short version is that it is possible to disrupt the Culture-Bearing stratum, but it is impossible to destroy it.

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