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Last night’s presidential debate was, in many ways, superfluous: if a U.S. citizen had not already made up their mind who they will vote for (or not already voted), it’s because they haven’t been paying attention.

But there is one factor pollsters and predictors of every stripe have not gotten good at accounting for, which can still have an impact. I call this the “secret ballot factor.” For all the things that went wrong in the 2016 presidential elections—the “horserace” media coverage that enabled a character like Donald Trump to take control of one of the two major parties, the levels of disinformation (from multiple sources) saturating so many levels of public culture and online media, and all the rest—this one factor has not been well understood nor extensively studied.

What I’m referring to is the psychological, emotional, and affective, dimensions underlying the secret ballot. The fact that Americans vote behind a privacy screen, and that no one will ultimately know who you voted for, gives the moment of voting a certain psychological potency: at that moment of (figuratively) “pulling the switch,” what you feel somewhere deeper than at the level of conversational culture can come through to the surface and voice itself through your pen-wielding hand. This is the level where people vote with their gut, not their head. (Mail-in ballots are different in this respect, and I’ll get to them in a minute.)

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As I’ve been preparing to cover QAnon in my media course (and trying to keep up with it, since it’s really been ramping up ahead of the election), I’ve seriously begun to think of it is a work of evil genius. Let me explain why.

For starters, it’s worth reminding ourselves that QAnon was designated as a domestic terrorism threat by the FBI last year, that dozens of U.S. congressional candidates (and a few representatives) have voiced support for it, and that President Trump’s Twitter feed is its most influential “superspreading” node. At last week’s nationally televised “town hall,” Trump refused to renounce the movement and instead nodded positively in its direction. Meanwhile, it is spreading rapidly in various forms not only in the U.S. but in Europe and around the world.

At heart, QAnon is an addictively interactive, video-game like, pyramid-schemey blob of a conspiracy theory, the ultimate in “conspirituality,” that has all the hallmarks of a new religious movement but with multiple entry points for different kinds of people. (As a new religious movement, it reminds me of the politically potent kinds of religious movements that China has seen a lot of, from the late medieval “redemptive societies” to Falun Gong.)

QAnon’s general subtext — that Donald Trump is taking on an elite global cabal of satanic and cannibalistic pedophiles, a group that includes everyone you most want to hate, especially if they are wealthy, liberal “globalists” of any stripe (but preferably Democrats) — is patently absurd. But that subtext is presented in a dizzyingly obfuscatory and beguilingly baroque, smoke-and-mirrors concoction that seeps into its followers’ psyches by engaging their hopes and fears in the most sinuously (and deviously) compelling ways.

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Cross-posted with the EcoCultureLab blog.

Media+Environment has just published another article in its “States of Media and Environment” series, and this one should be of broad interest to environmental educators, media scholars, and environmentally concerned media users.

Streaming Media’s Environmental Impact” draws attention to an unpopular but inescapable issue: the adverse environmental effects of streaming media. Four of the brief interventions in this multi-part article focus on streaming media’s carbon footprint, estimated by some to be 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (The Shift Project 2019). This startling figure is rising at a calamitous rate as more people around the world stream more media at higher bandwidth—now exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Another factor in streaming media’s environmental impact is even less welcome: the deleterious effects of higher levels of electromagnetic frequencies that media corporations’ turn to fifth-generation (5G) wireless technology would exacerbate. These effects are well documented yet almost universally ignored. Despite all these findings, the notion abides that digital media are immaterial.

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I just found out that Punctum Books has created a Shadowing the Anthropocene travel mug based on Vincent van Gerven Oei’s superb cover design of my book. Cool.

Readers can spare yourself the money for the book (read the free PDF) and get the mug instead!

(Hipster alert!)

My course “Self-Cultivation and Spiritual Practice” starts from the premise that philosophy — at least as it has existed outside of today’s analytical philosophy departments — has generally been about how to live, and that the best philosophers around the world have offered detailed instructions on how to get better at that. Historian of philosophy Pierre Hadot has called those “spiritual exercises,” and some contemporary philosophers (including Michel Foucault in his last years and Peter Sloterdijk more recently) have tried, in some ways, to make it that again. Since that dovetails well with the current popular interest in spirituality, yoga, mindfulness, and other such things, I offer the course to provide some historical and cultural grounding to practices found in the spiritual and philosophical “marketplace” today.

It’s a survey course that moves from the ancient world (Greece, India, China) to today’s emergent spiritualities. We just covered the Hellenistic world last week, and one of the little tidbits I shared included some advice for living in difficult times. It’s intended to help students distinguish between the perspectives of the Stoics and the Epicureans, and specifically between what Stoics call the “view from above” — a kind of universe’s view on our lives — and what the Epicureans might have called the “view from within” (or the “argument from nature”). While the views below aren’t exactly demonstrative of these, I think they work in our present context.

I prefaced the comment by noting that I teach and research the cultural dimensions of the environmental crisis. (The spiritual practice course is a special course taught for my university’s Honors College.) That means that I’m as aware as anyone of the scope, scale, and difficulty of the challenges humanity is and will be facing in the coming decades — an awareness that is enough to make anyone a pessimist (no kidding). The Covid-19 pandemic has only made that awareness feel more acute. So these are ways of tempering a “pessimogenic” situation with what I think of as “realistic optimism.”

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On day one, I poked an eye open. And shut it tight.

On day two, I tried again, looked around, grasped for something, clutched it tight. Then I ate it.

On day three (a lot of things happened between days two and three), I started thinking.

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See how far you follow my line of thinking here:

(1) Democracy (institutional and not just majoritarian/representational) is better than the alternatives. Let’s live with it (and defend it).

(2) Democracy as practiced in the U.S. today is partial, compromised, and somewhat muzzled, but still better than the alternatives. Let’s fix it up.

(3) Democracy, no matter how partial or complete, is not sufficient when it is leading us all off a cliff. At that point direct action becomes necessary. So are we heading off a cliff yet?

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I’ve just begun teaching a media course, entitled Media Ecologies and Cultural Politics, which I designed several years ago but have revised this year to focus on the issues of our current moment: the upcoming election, the Covid-19 pandemic, the crisis of racial justice, and what some have called the “crisis of information.”

Preparing for the course allowed me to review dozens of books, reports, handbooks and field guides that have come out in the last few years (mostly since the 2016 U.S. election), which have attempted to analyze and assess the factors contributing to our current informational malaise — that is, to what’s casually called “fake news,” disinformation, the “post-truth” condition, and all of that.

If I had to choose one of these readings to wholeheartedly recommend, especially in the months before the November U.S. elections, that choice would be an easy one. It’s a book by media scholars Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts entitled Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics, published by Oxford University Press in 2018. The authors are, respectively, Faculty co-Director, Research Director, and Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

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In part 1 of this article, I compared two recent books, each of which proclaims a “new paradigm” in the scientific study of emotions and affect: Lisa Feldman Barrett’s “constructivist” How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain and Stephen Asma’s and Rami Gabriel’s “basic emotions”-rooted The Emotional Mind: The Affective Roots of Culture and Cognition. In part 2, I relate each of these to recent social-scientific writing on “affective” or “emotional practices” and to a few key sources of my own efforts to articulate a “philosophy as a way of life,” that is, a contemporary askēsis: specifically, to Spinoza (briefly), Gurdjieff (at greater length), and Shinzen Young (whose mindfulness system I used as a basis for my own, presented in part 2 of Shadowing the Anthropocene). I end with an extended practical exercise that brings these strands of thinking together.

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The Covid-19 pandemic has offered all kinds of interesting case studies for those who study controversies in science, technology, and medicine. Hydroxychloroquine is one of them. It’s a bit unusual in that it highlights how the left-liberal mediasphere has sometimes followed similar trajectories as more commonly found on the (Trumpist) political right. But it’s interesting all the same, and perhaps even more so for that reason.

Norman Doidge, psychiatric clinician, popular science writer, and “neuroplasticity guy,” has written a helpful analysis of the controversy that, to my mind, qualifies as a kind of “popular STS” (science & technology studies), providing some interesting insights into the workings of medical and other sciences.

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The study of emotions, particularly within the field of affective neuroscience, is a complex field riven by paradigmatic division. In my book Shadowing the Anthropocene, I proposed a way to engage with one’s experience, including one’s emotional or affective experience, within an “eco-ethico-aesthetic” (or “logo-ethico-aesthetic”) practice that could help us deal with the “Anthropocene predicament.”

In the following two-part article, I reflect on that attempt in light of recent debates in the field of affective neuroscience. In part one, I summarize my understanding of what’s at stake between two approaches to emotions, represented by two recent popularizations of some fairly complex neuropsychological theory: Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain and Stephen Asma’s and Rami Gabriel’s The Emotional Mind: The Affective Roots of Culture and Cognition. While emerging from rival and in some respects opposite schools of thought, both books proclaim “new paradigms” in the understanding of the human mind. The projected second part will apply the debate between these perspectives to the process-relational “practices of the self” I introduced in Shadowing the Anthropocene, and will revise and extend those practices in the process.

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Here’s a back-of-the-envelope hypothesis on the “new media regime” and some open questions that follow from it.

Two groups are faring best these days under the current (new) media regime.*

The first is surveillance capitalists, who have developed ways to monetize and harvest new data technologies directly for the accumulation of wealth. (That covers the Jeff Bezoses, Mark Zuckerbergs, Larry Pages and Sergey Brins. If you add software billionaires like Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, and Larry Ellison, you have 7 of the 10 wealthiest individuals in the world.)

The second is conspiracy entrepreneurs (such as the Alex Joneses, al-Baghdadis, and Q’s), who know how to work social media into new forms of cultural capital (including millenarian cults like QAnon and the Islamic State), and the politicians who know how to work that capital into political capital (the Trumps, Putins, Bolsonaros, and Modis). There’s overlap between those two groups, and will probably be more of it, so I list them together. (Why conspiracy? Because in unsettling times people seek explanations, and in the new media regime, those explanations can be forwarded without much, if any, support.)

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