Sunday, May 19, 2024

America’s True Hyperreal Heroes

At the very moment that US President Joe Biden is busy demonstrating how little power he wields, whether in reigning in the neocolonial and militaristic behavior of the Israeli government or in attempting to push key legislation through Congress, Elon Musk, who has never been elected to any public office, is flaunting his unchallenged personal power over what may be the most disruptive force in today’s global economy: cryptocurrency.

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Gregory Barber, writing for Wired, notes that through his tweeting, Musk has become a self-contained agent of volatility. He can send the value of different cryptocurrencies north or south, whenever he feels like it. As Barber frames it, “Musk is creating and destroying small fortunes, 280-characters at a time.” In his email promoting the article, Barber speculates: “Perhaps it’s strategic, or just whimsy, or maybe it’s a kind of performance art to inspire us all to wonder at the value of things. We might never know Musk’s true motives.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Contextual Note

Elon Musk is a true hyperreal hero, whose only serious rival on the world stage has been Donald Trump. Both are committed to finding ways to obscure the public’s ability to understand some serious public issues. But, contrary to Barber’s assertion, their true motives have never been in doubt. They can be summarized in two words — money and power — and two pathologies — greed and narcissism.

Because most people in the United States have been taught to revere money and power — money as the key to power, power as the means of obtaining wealth — for all their obvious faults, their admirers not only continue to admire them but also celebrate their consummate ability to epitomize hyperreality. In the Calvinist tradition, wealth and power in the community were signs of divine favor. With the fading of the Puritan ethic of sober achievement, in their excess, Musk and Trump have attained the status of secular gods.

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American culture struggles helplessly with the idea of truth. Where the condition for basic survival is to be constantly selling something to other people (ideally by creating a marketplace), truth tends to disappear into a misty horizon, spawning a destabilizing doubt that it even exists. But rather than resigning themselves to the absence of truth, Americans now want to reduce it to the question of facts. Fact-checking is all the rage.

But serious philosophers and psychologists have always understood that the idea of truth means much more than establishing facts. Paradoxically, facts themselves can represent a convenient way of burying the truth. Journalists and public figures know this. A typical New York Times article on a potentially controversial issue typically contains a breathless series of short paragraphs citing facts, events and expert statements.

The authors avoid providing logical connections between the paragraphs in an effort to let the facts accumulate. After aligning litanies of factoids and well-chosen quotes, the authors can be certain that no reader will be capable of stitching together anything that leads them towards an underlying meaning. “True motives” will be lost in the onslaught. Here at Amid news, we have cited examples of these logicless developments, for instance here and here.

Both of our hyperreal heroes have been publicly disciplined for tweeting irresponsibly. Perceived as less dangerous, Musk still has a Twitter account whereas Trump had his taken away just before leaving the White House. Musk once declared that “Twitter is a war zone,” whereas Trump was accused of using it to foment civil war. His “true motive” appears to have been an attempt to create enough havoc to justify remaining in the White House. It didn’t work for Trump, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have been inspired by Trump’s example after failing to form a new majority earlier this year.

According to Barber, Musk’s tweets “drop from the sky without warning. He controls the narrative, and thus the market effect.” This is not just hyperreal posturing or playing an expected public role with melodramatic or comic effect, as both Trump and Musk are wont to do on practically any occasion. Musk’s tweets concerning cybercurrency give him a power to make money instantly, at the expense of millions of other people. It sounds dangerous and downright unethical, but as a lawyer quoted by Barber explains, “You can’t police based on what you think is somebody’s subjective heart-of-hearts intent.” Is “heart-of-hearts intent” a synonym of “true motive”? In US culture, people tend to think so.

Barber notes that only “a small number of people” possess something comparable to Musk’s hyperreal power. He cites Warren Buffett and the Federal Reserve chair, Jerome Powell. Neither of them is addicted to tweeting. But what is the true source of irresponsibility in this story? Is it Musk himself? Or is it Twitter as an institution that facilitates manipulation? Could it be cryptocurrency, which, as a pure product of purchasers’ greed, with no direct link to anything of substance, might justifiably be called hypercurrency? All three combine to define the hyperreal landscape that surrounds us, along with our media who amplify the drama the others generate.

Historical Note

Throughout history, political leaders have managed to control events by influencing the behavior of tens of thousands, and sometimes millions, of people. Think of Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and Hitler. Whatever extraordinary narrative their culture invented for them and whatever personal charisma on their part contributed to their success, what these figures from the past did was rooted in the reality of government, administration, coercive force and concrete economic relationships.

Hyperreality today sits atop all those features of power but thrives in an independent world of its own. It may be that without the example of Hollywood we never would have reached this stage. Musk and Trump alike are more like entertainment figures — both writing the script and playing the role — than to leaders of social, political or cultural movements.

Two centuries ago, P.T. Barnum provided the model for hyperreality that would fully blossom in the 20th century thanks to the disruptive technology of movies, television and finally the internet. Barnum invented an entire sector of entertainment based on the misrepresentation of facts when, after purchasing an aging slave, Joice Heth, put her on display, claiming she was 161 years old and had been young George Washington’s nurse. Barnum understood how facts and symbolism combine to draw the public to his spectacles.

George Washington was already known as “the father of the nation.” Barnum provided an exotic, black mothering figure for the father of the country. At the same time, the supposed relationship served to justify slavery and racism by promoting the idea that blacks in a situation of service could nurture whites, and whites would protect and nurture blacks.

Barnum later became famous for organizing his three-ring circus, but before that he built his reputation around presenting facts or the appearance of facts. He created the American Museum in Manhattan. It featured both authentic historical artifacts and a freak show, prolonging the spirit of deception he developed around Joice Heth. With his partner James Bailey, he launched hyperreality’s ultimate theme with a circus they called “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Barnum himself never sought to be a hyperreal hero. He simply propagated the values of the culture of American hyperreality that would be refined by a later generation of architects of hyperreality.

William Randolph Hearst modeled the modern idea of the news. Sigmund Freud’s American nephew, Edward Bernays, invented the art of public relations built around the science of advertising designed as a form of mind control. Trump and Musk have come to represent the ultimate hyperreal heroes, but they have built their identities around the culture created by geniuses like Barnum and Bernays combined with the culture of Hollywood’s larger-than-life screen heroes. They are not alone. There are plenty of hyperreal supporting actors and extras who give depth to the representation. But they are the ones talented enough and sufficiently narcissistic to occupy center stage and ultimately influence the audience’s behavior.

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