Loving Paranoid Media
   ... and hating every minute of it
   by Don Thompson

Published April, 2006

One of the most interesting and pervasive trends in film and media has been an increasing sense of paranoia, both blatant and implied, in the messages communicated. The subtext of all this paranoia seems to rise from an overarching sense of apocalypse on some level, be that social, spiritual, environmental, or otherwise. In many ways, this sense of paranoia seems to be manufactured in order to keep media consumers in a heightened sense of anxiety and fear, because fear is, as any psychologist will tell you, the greatest motivator. In the case of media, that motivation is to watch, to be fascinated by the images and messages provided so that you, the viewer, are captured in the mental space of the media provider. The desired result is, as I will propose here, a vote or a purchase, and the more the better.

To be sure, a paranoid populace is more likely to cede power to those that can, in theory, remove their fear. If the government and corporate powers can make you feel a very real sense of anxiety, it's much easier to get you to get on board with a plethora of programs that expand their power and reach, or to buy the product and/or service that can (in theory) remove that fear and replace it with pleasure or stimulation. And the greater the churn of that stimulation the better: because it means you’re buying more, not less.

Often, various paranoid media realities will play off one another, batting you around like a ping pong ball. If network television news pummels you with a sense of impending catastrophe, and you retreat to the Cinemaplex, what you see there will likely give you ample reason to feel more paranoid, not less. A common theme of horror and suspense films is: “Trust no one!” Return from the theater to the network primetime show, and you see more of the same: the crime drama. While in the past you may have turned to prayer and meditation for consolation against all these horrors, today you retreat to the iPod, which is at least corporate owned and profitable. Alternatively, you might actually embrace the paranoid and its stimulating media rush, and you wind up more like Freddy Kruger and less like Friends. Ultimately, we’re all addicted in one way or another, constantly plugged into mediated realities which are controlled by promoters, advertisers, politicians and others who want a vote or a purchase.

What is missing is human interaction (don’t most people spend most of their days in front of computer screens at work and at night, at home, in front of the TV?). God forbid you should want any quiet time on your own, or enjoy the normal pleasures of intimate human intercourse (particularly sexual intercourse, vile and rife with disease as that is). The fear of sex is used, strangely, to promote more of it, but again, of the virtual and porn industry kind that can be packaged and profited from. (As my mother once told me, sex has always been around, it’s just that what people used to do in private is now sold on eBay.)

If you want to know how far we’ve ventured from what used to considered normal human discourse, read Emerson’s Friendship. You will note, if you’re honest, that you probably have no friends based on Emerson’s definition, because everyone in modern human society has become so commodified, demographied, slotted, digitized and consumerized (including our families), that human beings are becoming more like the Borg (of Star Trek) than anything else. (If you doubt this, try to communicate with a very focused computer gamer while they're in the zone.) Our purpose is to buy and sell, and other humans are just means to an end, equivalent to all the demonic forces in computer games you need to blast through to win the prize. In this reality, real estate and things (real or virtual) matter most, not people. Moreover, since most land has been spoken for and resources are getting scarcer, the only places ripe for economic expansion are either digital or, perversely, the human body itself. Why else would Americans be getting so fat, with fat oozing forth in places we never thought possible twenty years ago? Today's economic empires are not built on colonial expansion, but on the big bellies of couch potatoes, giving global expansion an entirely new meaning.

Hyper-consumerism, moreover, goes hand in hand with a paranoid media. Why? Because hyper-consumerism is fueled by over stimulation, which is best accomplished by shock and fear (or is it Shock and Awe?). Ask any behavioral psychologist: play classical music and the mice in the maze will go to sleep. Show them the CBS evening news and they will scurry around, agitated and looking for their next meal. And that, my friends, is the preferred behavior –- to have us scurry to that next Happy Meal.

There was a time when the European Enlightenment (and its Eastern counterpart I would argue) offered us an alternative to our current form of hyperstimulated media fascination. That alternative is not mystical or obtuse: it's simply called self-aware mature adulthood, and everybody from Hollywood to Bollywood seems intent on keeping (mostly males) from achieving it. And what we have instead I will call media fascism because fascism has, at its root, the term fascination; in other words, fascination with power. For example, I was just in London, and witnessed the changing of the guard. Swarms of eager people crowded around to see behind the gates fascinated at the event and the emblems of power: the pomp and circumstance of royalty and its trappings. Just as we are fascinated by the Coat of Arms of the Royal Family, so we are fascinated by the Fox News banner and the unblinking eye contact of the news casters and the gowns at the Golden Globes and the Super Bowl half time. We give the providers of these experiences, in essence, our power and our responsibility: that is the transaction. They fascinate us, we give them power.

Of course the original model for all this fascination stuff is the church. The church used to be the primary mediator between us and God, taking away the painful responsibility of figuring out all this life and death nonsense and giving us the program, which, if adhered to, promised salvation. So it is today: but now the media and film is the church and the mediated reality is not God, but life itself, which is at its core (or so they tell us) a thing to be feared and mistrusted. What used to be called the “will of God” is now deemed “market forces" -- and God's dark side, The Inquisition, has been replaced by The Apprentice and Project Runway. The alternative offered to actual living, painful and full of unpredictable outcomes, is the Mall, whose ultimate expression is Disneyland. Shopping is the ritual that has replaced churchgoing, the ritual that eases our pain by promising a buffered, safe environment of eternal suburban abundance. Abundance being, if you catch my drift, equated with heaven. Hell is, well, everything threatening that: terrorists, criminals, corrupt politicians, accidents, child molesters, calamities and, if you believe much of the media, most other human beings (keeps us from unionizing, doesn’t it?). Heaven is the Mall -- the Disney Experience -– which gives us our myths and our purpose, but takes away our responsibility for figuring life out on our own.

If you doubt that normal human interchange is on the way out, just watch the Disney Channel very carefully. You will note that all of the teenage girls treat each other in in exactly the same way, furrow their eyebrows in a consistent and petulant fashion, and always have a little sound effect (like a cartoon) when they blink or a “swoosh” when they move. In short, most are not human beings, but witches or witches in progress. (Forget about Princesses, that is so old school.) The Disney answer is that we should all become like cartoons: that is, indestructible (soon possible with genetics?). And our leaders form the perfect example: Dick Cheney doesn’t die, he has “a routine” heart episode which requires a quick fix and then, well, back up on his feet like Goofy in some Disney cartoon. The problem is that a lot of what Mr. Cheney promotes is not so funny.

Cartoon reality is the alternative to the fear and hell that supposedly exist everywhere else, and quickly becoming our idea of heaven. To find hell we need not look beyond CNN’s The Situation Room. The Situation Room mimics a war room like mentality where there are multiple events occurring simultaneously in a crisis, and you, the viewer, are the commander in chief that needs to be kept abreast of all the incoming stimuli in order to make the best decision. The urgency propagated by The Situation Room and the 24 hour news cycle is keeps us, in essence, in continual and anxious anticipation of the next event. The next event is, of course, the disaster waiting to happen. The next tsunami, the next terrorist attack, the next global epidemic, the next Katrina. Because if we are given a heads up we might, in theory, survive. (Ironically, many of these events are the result, directly or indirectly, of human activity.)

We might survive. If we stop and think about it a moment, the whole proposition becomes a little absurd when in reality none of us survive. We aren’t really cartoons; I mean, we all die, right? Or am I missing something? Since we all die, then there must be another motivating factor behind all this urgency. It must be, maybe, yes I’ve got it -– we will survive longer than the next guy. And it is surviving longer than the next guy that makes us the winners in a game where we all lose. (Look at the first winner of the Survivor show: he recently wound up arrested for tax evasion).

Now you might ask, who the hell cares? I guess I do, so I ponder it. I ponder it because I am continually amazed at how manipulated people are by other (I guess more intelligent?) people who will do anything to optimize the system we have created that puts front and center as its core reason for being one thing and one thing alone: profit. That is, in essence, the value system that overrides all corporate decision making. Profit. Now profit isn’t in itself “evil”-- but when devoid of complementary motives (like common decency) and used as the fundamental driver of a society it can quickly skew reality in very interesting and perverse ways.

One of the more interesting reality alterations is that by commodifying a sense of paranoid urgency the capitalist system has, in its very real genius, figured out how to make money off our fear of death and our longing for immortality. Because the fear of death (if one looks at the philosophical underpinnings of such fear), the fear of death invokes an urgency to live now and with a purpose; in other words, to live with a sense of urgency means to live with a sense that we can die at any moment, and therefore what counts is the moment. Then, once this is understood, the question becomes: what does one do with those moments in order to confront the continual fear of death that stalks every human being on the planet? Ideally, philosophers and spiritual teachers have us “live in the moment” and experience heaven as life. (If you wonder what I’m talking about, you might check out Terrence Mallick's The New World.) Marketers have twisted this ideal (along with many others) and channeled it to their own purposes. And it is here a funny little thing called intention comes into play. And, as Aristotle figured out a couple of thousand years ago, it is within the world of intention that all ethics arise. The intended “purpose” (according to Marketers) for our society is not that you should meditate on the inevitability of death and seek some kind of individual spiritual resolution or heightened poetic reverie; no, the intended answer for our society is that you should numb yourself to the reality of death through one of numerous distractions, hopefully several at the same time, and all of which are designed to make somebody some money.

However, a society whose intentions are, at its core, to selfishly seek one’s own profit over another is a society whose days, one would guess, are numbered. This is the real apocalypse and the vicious cycle that haunts our modern culture. We feel our days are numbered because we innately know that the basis of our society is inherently corrupt because the intentions at its core are misguided (unless you’re a true believer, in which case the ultimate good for society is profits). But the system, in its genius, turns that very sense of apocalyptic urgency into fuel for more profit, as everyone seeks to exploit one another and cash out on the sinking ship in ever more blatant and creative methods (like unnecessary wars). It is the cycle of our ever more cynical civilization: the sense of impending doom that surrounds us as our Empire implodes based on its own internal contradictions. In the case of the United States, social collapse will not, I assure you, happen without somebody making a lot of money. If you doubt me, just take a peek at Jim Cramer's cable show Mad Money, as he cynically describes "government of the corporations, for the corporations, and by the corporations" even as he makes stock recommendations to investors.

So are our days numbered? The real novelty our current system -- what makes it different from, let's say, the Romans -- is to perennially create a self-perpetuating social tension between our innate, internal, human ethics and an external, dehumanizing and invasive values that must seek, in some way, a release. And what if that release can be controlled, that desire to escape from the binary conflict that sees its manifestation in good vs. evil, heroes vs. terrorists, Republicans vs. Democrats, Red States vs. Blue States, Pro-Life vs. Abortion Rights, etc. etc., ad infinitum: in other words, the perpetual struggle and conflict between opposites. Our modern, technological twist is that all this struggle may not create chaos and decline: no, the tensions created between this struggle, exploited and amped up and in many ways created by a lot of clever people who control and manage the media message in highly Machiavellian ways –- the result is energies channeled and released into hyper-consumerism. Yes, and then you’ve got real profit. Mega profit. Really huge mega profit. And we may not be doomed at all: we just might be at the beginning of something really great!

Understand, then, that our current method for social organization must create ever more tension and ever more paranoid urgency and ever more fear in order to create ever greater profits. Forget about peace. Peace is patently useless and must be avoided. The War in Iraq aside, even if in physical reality we have more peace (which is, in fact, the case, if you check the statistics), in our mediated realities we will have less and less as we move the reality of physical wars and crime to the reality of commodified virtual war and crime (meaning a computer games paradigm for living), of digitized and institutionalized neurosis and mental dysfunction and paranoia –- a reality that is perceived to be necessary for increased stimulation and profits to create the churn necessary for hyper-consumer activity.

But there is an alternative: that the tables will turn on the reality manipulators in unforeseen ways in that individuals may seek release not in the shopping mall and computer games, but in self-awareness.

And there is a true urgency for such an awareness, because without it we may truly destroy ourselves (i.e., the environment has no reset button) -- no matter how clever our leaders think they are as they play their games of social roulette. The urgency for awareness is the urgency of the individual seeking personal and social peace in a world which is determined in any way possible to remove that peace because that peace is, paradoxically, an affront against its (perceived) survival. You must be anxious, fearful, on edge and ready to deploy. If you are not you will perish, or so they wish you to believe.

But, as stated before, we all perish anyway. The question comes back to you, as an individual –- how do you perish, your way or theirs?

--Don Thompson (nextpixnyc@aol.com)

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