The Null Device
This article looks at the malaise in indie/hipster culture, and places the blame squarely at the feet of 1990s proto-hipster Beck:
The two most common characteristics of the “indie” persona these days, at least in North America, are an aversion to overt seriousness and the ability to find everything “awesome”. These characteristics often intermingle and feed off one another, creating the voracious indie devourer who is able to simultaneously enjoy every kind of music while at the same time not particularly caring about anything. They are the ultimate consumer, willing to embrace and discard bands at a moment’s notice while never questioning what led them to lose interest in one band and embrace another. Awkward inquiries about almost any subject can be dealt with in a detached and deliberately ironic manner — following trends is awesome, selling out is awesome, being shallow is awesome, sweatshops are awesome. When it comes to fashion, trashiness battles against both vintage store retro and American Apparel chic as the dominant form, and everyone thinks that everybody but themselves is a hipster. How this persona was birthed is a relatively straightforward tale, as suburban America fell in the love with the vulgar commercial product of its youth. An ironic approach was already somewhat popular but something, or in this case someone, happened in the ‘90s to turn what was a mere aspect of American culture into the dominant personality trait of American teenagers, twenty-somethings and, at this point, thirty-somethings. That someone was Beck.
Cinema in the 90s reflected this shift in taste, with the ultra-violence of Quentin Tarantino’s movies creating a detached, cartoonish reality that allowed the viewer to feel unconcerned as to the repercussions of the savagery on screen. The character’s brutal transgressions are played out for entertainment and amusement rather than illustrating any kind of painful struggle. Tarantino’s movies were also filled with pop culture references that allowed the viewer to feel like they were part of the director’s insular self-congratulatory world. If America in the 70s wrestled with moral dilemmas and a diminished sense of individuality and reach, then pop culture mavens in the 90s merely wanted to be in on the joke. To music fans who imagined themselves to be more alternative in their approach, Beck fulfilled this need. His music basked in the mindset of trash culture and knowing irony, of sneering at seriousness, of adopting hip-hop beats to play up the now utterly commonplace “look at me I’m a nerdy white guy rapping about ridiculous things” persona that has managed to all but reduce hip-hop to a comedy sideshow for those who need an occasional break from their Arcade Fire or Vampire Weekend albums.The ironic stance, the article argues, was a false victory, delivering the counterculture straight into the arms of the consumerist mainstream. After all, you can buy more crap if you're doing so ironically:
Consumerism thrives on people getting excited about, and buying, things that they ultimately don’t care about. In this sense the ironic persona is the ultimate gift to consumerism. Mainstream music revels in easy sentiment and soul-crushing banality and can only truly be enjoyed by not paying attention to the lyrics. Beck’s meaningless babble trained a generation of young ears to seek out amusing sound-bites over articulate content and in doing so helped break down the last vestiges of ‘alternative’ music by making it as equally meaningless as, and therefore all but identical to, mainstream drivel.I'm wondering whether the rise to dominance of the stance of ironic detachment and the tendency of musicians and bands to define themselves publically by catalogues of their influences ("we're kraut-punk meets Afrobeat meets New Jack Swing") could not both be symptoms of a more abstract shift from directness and immediacy towards mediation and referentiality, an addition of levels of abstraction to the processes of culture, a tendency to see and do things from one step removed.
Today in weaponised sociolinguistics: the US intelligence research agency IARPA is running a programme to collect and catalogue metaphors used in different cultures, hopefully revealing how the Other thinks. This follows on from the work of cognitive linguist George Lakoff, who theorised that whoever controls the metaphors used in language can tilt the playing field extensively:
Conceptual metaphors have been big business over the last few years. During the last Bush administration, Lakoff – a Democrat – set up the Rockridge Institute, a foundation that sought to reclaim metaphor as a tool of political communication from the right. The Republicans, he argued, had successfully set the terms of the national conversation by the way they framed their metaphors, in talking about the danger of ‘surrendering’ to terrorism or to the ‘wave’ of ‘illegal immigrants’. Not every Democrat agreed with his diagnosis that the central problem with American politics was that it was governed by the frame of the family, that conservatives were proponents of ‘authoritarian strict-father families’ while progressives reflected a ‘nurturant parent model, which values freedom, opportunity and community building’ (‘psychobabble’ was one verdict, ‘hooey’ another).
But there’s precious little evidence that they tell you what people think. One Lakoff-inspired study that at first glance resembles the Metaphor Program was carried out in the mid-1990s by Richard D. Anderson, a political scientist and Sovietologist at UCLA, who compared Brezhnev-era speeches by Politburo members with ‘transitional’ speeches made in 1989 and with post-1991 texts by post-Soviet politicians. He found, conclusively, that in the three periods of his study the metaphors used had changed entirely: ‘metaphors of personal superiority’, ‘metaphors of distance’, ‘metaphors of subordination’ were out; ‘metaphors of equality’ and ‘metaphors of choice’ were in. There was a measurable change in the prevailing metaphors that reflected the changing political situation. He concluded that ‘the change in Russian political discourse has been such as to promote the emergence of democracy’, that – in essence – the metaphors both revealed and enabled a change in thinking. On the other hand, he could more sensibly have concluded that the political system had changed and therefore the metaphors had to change too, because if a politician isn’t aware of what metaphors he’s using who is?The article is vague on the actual IARPA research programme, but reveals that it involves extracting metaphors from large bodies of texts in four languages (Farsi, Mexican Spanish, Russian and English) and classifying them according to emotional affect.
The IARPA metaphor programme follows an earlier proposal to weaponise irony:
If we don’t know how irony works and we don’t know how it is used by the enemy, we cannot identify it. As a result, we cannot take appropriate steps to neutralize ironizing threat postures. This fundamental problem is compounded by the enormous diversity of ironic modes in different world cultures and languages. Without the ability to detect and localize irony consistently, intelligence agents and agencies are likely to lose valuable time and resources pursuing chimerical leads and to overlook actionable instances of insolence. The first step toward addressing this situation is a multilingual, collaborative, and collative initiative that will generate an encyclopedic global inventory of ironic modalities and strategies. More than a handbook or field guide, the work product of this effort will take the shape of a vast, searchable, networked database of all known ironies. Making use of a sophisticated analytic markup language, this “Ironic Cloud” will be navigable by means of specific ironic tropes (e.g., litotes, hyperbole, innuendo, etc.), by geographical region or language field (e.g., Iran, North Korea, Mandarin Chinese, Davos, etc.), as well as by specific keywords (e.g., nose, jet ski, liberal arts, Hermès, night soil, etc.) By means of constantly reweighted nodal linkages, the Ironic Cloud will be to some extent self-organizing in real time and thus capable of signaling large-scale realignments in the “weather” of global irony as well as providing early warnings concerning the irruption of idiosyncratic ironic microclimates in particular locations—potential indications of geopolitical, economic, or cultural hot spots.The proposal goes on to suggest possibilities of using irony as a weapon:
Superpower-level political entities (e.g., Roman Empire, George W. Bush, large corporations, etc.) have tended to look on irony as a “weapon of the weak” and thus adopted a primarily defensive posture in the face of ironic assault. But a historically sensitive consideration of major strategic realignments suggests that many critical inflection points in geopolitics (e.g., Second Punic War, American Revolution, etc.) have involved the tactical redeployment of “guerrilla” techniques and tools by regional hegemons. There is reason to think that irony, properly concentrated and effectively mobilized, might well become a very powerful armament on the “battlefield of the future,” serving as a nonlethal—or even lethal—sidearm in the hands of human fighters in an information-intensive projection of awesome force. Without further fundamental research into the neurological and psychological basis of irony, it is difficult to say for certain how such systems might work, but the general mechanism is clear enough: irony manifestly involves a sudden and profound “doubling” of the inner life of the human subject. The ironizer no longer maintains an integrated and holistic perspective on the topic at hand but rather experiences something like a small tear in the consciousness, whereby the overt and covert meanings of a given text or expression are sundered. We do not now know just how far this tear could be opened—and we do not understand what the possible vital consequences might be.