Weekend Update: the Vacuous Morsel Edition

in which we discuss Michael Jackson, Willie Nelson, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Homer’s Odyssey, Slavoj Žižek, the algorithmic brains of Google, Mark Sanford, Twitter, the advertising wiles of Abercrombie & Fitch, and the ongoing infantilization of culture (on a Saturday no less!).

The play's the thing

When Michael Jackson went, we had just started reminiscing about Farrah. We quickly forgot her golden locks and her charms to cripple the Twitterverse with the news of this most curious Benjamin Button-esque figure of Michael Jackson who as a child sang with the presence of an elder and spent the rest of his life asking doctors to carve him back into the child he never was.


Perhaps the biggest news in a world forgetting the difference between information and wisdom was that Google searches on his death set records for a single day clogging search engines whose algorithmic brains read the spike in Michael Jackson searches as an attack. No one actually searches for Michael Jackson said the formulas. But they were, and the brains got wise and realized no, not an attack, just the world slipping into a celebrity-induced coma.

But before we had a chance to retweet that vacuous morsel, Google followed the Michael Jackson search news with more (non)news that Maria (last name unknown at the time) topped both Jacko and Farrah in the search engine popularity race. So it wasn’t just a coma of celebrity but one of sex and celebrity death. I feel so much better.

Who woulda thought a lackluster Governor of South Carolina and his paramour would generate so much interest? This is one I don’t get. And it’s not that I don’t like Governors, especially ones from South Carolina. I once had dinner with a former Governor of South Carolina, who was also a former cabinet member in Clinton’s White House. We had dazzling conversation if I say so myself, which included topics as far-ranging as his love of the law and of education to what it would be like to smoke pot with Willie Nelson, which apparently one need only get within 100 yards of Willie’s bus to do so. The ex-Governor loves Willie Nelson (given the chastity of So. Carolina Govs, I should clarify that his love was platonic and of Willie Nelson’s music), but he frowned on Willie’s choice of plants to smoke. I suggested that perhaps his bus smelled like that from the bio-diesel fumes. I believe the Governor replied in his soothing drawl “son, that bus did not smell like french fries.” (Perhaps he didn’t think our conversation so dazzling.)

He was everything I imagined in the well-worn phrase “southern gentleman.” Next to him sat a man from Ford’s White House, now a conservative cable news talking head and one of President Ford’s pallbearers. He looks like he eats small children for breakfast and when I see him sometimes on cable, he’s often apoplectic. Over dinner, the two of them tussled back and forth on policy, but they were gentle and friendly. They were intelligent and considerate. They showed an enormous amount of respect for each other as they pulled and teased out a number of policy angles they were to consider on the program I was producing the next morning. I left the table regretting that the cameras would have to come back on in the morning, even if those cameras had brought me to this table.

But in these United States, the cameras are never off, especially since the iPhone now does video and overwhelmed YouTube’s server with a spike in uploads.

It’s this week’s trend, this overwhelming of the servers.

And I see in this non-stop news churn world an oft-repeated angle on Michael Jackson. The well-coifed loveliness on the screen says something like “will Michael be remembered as the “King of Pop,” the genius of Thriller or will the events of his personal life in the past few years—the accusations, the money problems—overshadow his legacy.”

Ponder for a moment another way of thinking about this, courtesy of Slavoj Žižek (because really, it wouldn’t be the weekend without a little Žižek). Žižek begins The Plague of Fantasies with the notion that the television show the X-files had it precisely correct: “the truth is out there.” Here are the first few lines:

“When a couple of years ago, the disclosure of Michael Jackson’s alleged ‘immoral’ private behavior (his sexual games with underage boys) dealt a blow to his innocent Peter Pan image, elevated beyond sexual and racial differences (or concerns), some penetrating commentators asked the obvious question: What’s all the fuss about? Wasn’t this so-called “dark side of Michael Jackson’ always here for all of us to see, in the video spots that accompanied his musical releases, which were saturated with ritualized violence and obscene sexualized gestures (blatantly so in the case of Thriller and Bad)? The Unconscious is outside, not hidden in any unfathomable depths–or, to quote the X Files motto: ‘The truth is out there’.

And by out there, he means that material reality–the way we live, act, the work we do, the things we build–manifests our most intimate, ideological antagonisms. He’s building off Lacan’s neologism “extimacy” (extimite) — that the interior/exterior psychic wall is not quite so solid as one might think, or like.

In other words, there aren’t two Michael Jacksons: the Peter Pan and the pedophile. There was just one and it was right there on the screen, in our face, the entire time. It was the sadistic spectacle of infantilization and pedophilia that was his muse and gave his work its cultural power. In this, Michael Jackson is not so different from Gov. Sanford’s “family values” or Ted Haggerty’s (of the National Association of Evangelicals) rage against everything he himself was engaged (gay sex, drugs, infidelity) which is, as Žižek would have it, obeying the “imp of perversity” in which the so-called interior struggle is writ large on the screen of the world. As Hamlet’s mum knows only too well, when presented with the play-within-a-play, (a mirror/screen held up to reveal herself to herself, outside in) “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” The same could be said of Haggerty, or Jackson, or Sanford, etc. ad nauseum.

We’re fond of repeating the same old saw that what’s on our screen isn’t real. Sometimes we dust off the cliche to excuse ourselves for our indulgences. Come on, it’s make-believe, it’s fantasy, we/you/kids know the difference between what’s on the screen and what’s real. Other times we dust it off to beat ourselves (or our neighbors) over the head. That is, we employ the phrase to condemn the techno-Hollywood-music-video-game world as a stupor-producing conspiracy to render us all glassy-eyed mouth breathers. To which I would only say that it’s actually a conspiracy to render us all glassy-eyed mouth breathers WHO SHOP. What else explains Abercrombie & Fitch’s wholesale swiping of Michael Jackson’s playbook to create an entire brand around hyper-sexualized infantilization?1

Perhaps what really frightens/attracts us about “the screen” is that it reflects our most intimate unconscious antagonisms in ways so powerful as to render the process obscene. I don’t use obscene here to mean our thoughts, our intimate struggles as repulsive. They may or may not be. I’m talking about the obscene power of the screen; perhaps it’s too real.

But of course, it’s not just the screen. Shakespeare saw it in drama: “the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King” (Act 2 of Hamlet). And I would argue that Homer saw it in the written word. In Book IX of The Odyssey, Homer has his hero sharpen a stick into a metaphorical pencil with which to blind not just the drunken Polyphemos, but perhaps also his readers: “Seizing the olive stake, sharp at the tip, they plunged it in his eye, and I, perched up above, whirled it around. As when a man bores shipbeams with a drill, and those below keep it in motion with a strap held by the ends, and steadily it runs.”

Whether we see the camera/word as blinding or illuminating or both, Homer’s “and steadily it runs” rings never more true than this week in late June, 2009.

If only the servers can keep up.

1 Abercrombie & Fitch employed Žižek to write their catalog copy at one point, one of the weirder and more distressing collaborations.