A Crisis of Interpretation

After September 11, 2001, the United States has arguably entered a continuum characterized by the capitalist drive to just do it. This is a zeitgeist that emphasizes action over thought — movement over contemplation. A trend toward anti-intellectualism had been growing since the last century, and the fact of terrorism seems to have been the final blow, toppling American thoughtfulness along with the twin towers.

The mania that followed the figurative collapse of America with its twin signifiers has brought about the literal collapse of the American economic system, especially for those who have historically been disenfranchised. There is a new world, the nascent and wily political and social movements seem to shout from the streets — one that must be engaged in a visceral way, not is an elitist, academic one. Just after 9/11, Stanley Fish’s voice defending postmodernism — what he characterized as an academic theoretical position, not an ontological philosophy — seemed to be drowned out by the cries for vengeance, war, and a reassertion of American dominance. Those smarties in their rarefied academic atmosphere have made us all sissies, irreligious, immoral, feminine, and tolerant. We need to take control back and drive the the immoral behavior back in the closet if it cannot be obliterated all together.

America flexed its military muscle and launched two wars after 9/11 that have drained not only our coffers, but our social morale. These are not the only wars America has waged since 9/11, but there has been cultural war, too. Mailer points out in Why Are We at War? that the political right has used the terrorist attacks as an excuse to tighten America’s chastity belt, to reassert those traditional values that privilege a phallologocentric views and practices. America’s empire is crumbling because it has lost its moral center. The only way to get it back is to institute a moral reform and eliminate the social evils of liberalism. America has lost its identity, and only through direct action can it get it back.

The crisis of identity that Mailer sees in America has brought about a further crisis of interpretation. Many of the attitudes vocalized by the right spring from the conservative pundits on the national “news” channels. Movements like the Birthers or the Tea Partiers (and now the Deathers) are strategically nothing new in partisan politics, nor are the talking heads that support them and feed their fires. One of the central aspects of old broadcast forms — television and radio, in particular — is that they fostered a culture of non-responsiveness, as Jean Baudrillard put it. He meant that the mass media are “anti-mediatory and intransitive,” leaving no room for communication, response, or play. In these old forms, “power belongs to the one who can give and cannot be repaid.” This has the consequence of forcing certain social attitudes, tends to assure that people are not talking to each other, and, Raymond Williams adds, leads to the privatized home, separate and distinct from decisive political and commercial powers.

Yet, while digital, social media might allow for a revolutionary response, it also leaves many of us afloat without a rudder on a turbulent sea. We are free, yes, but now at the hands of chaotic tides and devastating tempests. In much the same way as terrorism makes its victims flee back to the comfort of their safe houses, the current digital landscape provides a vertiginous amount of information, almost forcing us to focus our gaze on the good-ol’-days of narrower bandwidths. I can’t help but think of the Grand Inquisitor’s offer of miracle, mystery, and authority to the huddled, frightened masses. All one need do is leave your freedom at the door. Just do it.

As Langdon Winner observes in his essay “Mythinformation,” the utopian aspirations of digital access often have just the opposite effect: an impotent paralysis in the face of overwhelming choice. Too much freedom is a terrifying prospect to those not used to it — not prepared for it. In the face of such a prospect, the masses seek succor in the traditional narratives of their fathers. How do we interpret too much choice? It’s a loss of directions, values, morality, and sanity.

This crisis of interpretation has us retreating to the easily binary answers of good and evil, right and wrong, right and left. The problem with the polarities are they sacrifice subtlety, nuance, and choice to the gods of certainty, righteousness, and privilege. The rallying call demands that the polyphony of voices be silenced by the one, true voice of certainty. In a time of crisis, we seem to seek the authority that can help us out of it. Don your tea bags — we must act!