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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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I’ve long been receptive to the idea that we need a spiritual, or even a religious, movement to address the climate crisis. Of course, I define both “spiritual” and “religious” quite broadly, and am well aware of how both terms have been shaped within histories that are Eurocentric and dominated by monotheistic, Christian, and more recently Protestant assumptions about what constitutes religion (and “spirit”) and what does not. As a (sometime) scholar of religion and spirituality, I avoid those assumptions.

Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation movement is, in my view, a spiritual movement. When it gets critiqued on empirical grounds, as it has been recently — and when it gets defended on those same grounds — the spiritual impulse underlying the movement might get lost. Clarifying what that impulse is can be helpful when one is trying to disentangle the arguments between the movement and its critics.

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So, 150 or so fairly prominent individuals write/sign an open letter defending “justice and open debate.” (We can call them intellectuals, or literati, or academics, or even celebrities of a sort — maybe “intellectual celebrities” — but see point #1 below on generalizations.)

In the letter, they single out Donald Trump and the “forces of illiberalism” for criticism, but aim their guns at something more general and vague — “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty” — with allusions to (citation-free) examples that only hint at specifics. Media responses have provided the missing object here, calling it “cancel culture” – a term that emerged in social media, but that has been vigorously taken up by the right as a problem of the left.

Some people are pleased by the letter, even delighted, especially on the right (note WSJ’s headline “Bonfire of the Liberals“), others are not happy at all. At least one community feels threatened and sees it as promoting an erasure of their very existence (“containing as many dog whistles toward anti-trans positions as it does”), I’m guessing especially because of one of the signatories (the one who is the most commonly cited in headlines; see point #1 below).

Here are a few observations on the letter and the responses it has elicited, accompanied by questions that are only partly rhetorical and a hypothesis that I haven’t seen explored elsewhere yet.

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The Covid-19 situation in the United States, which has become the epicenter of new infections because of its flawed and chaotic response to the pandemic, is seen by some around the world as an emergency case of its own, requiring some sort of defensive response by countries that could become similarly infected. The Week‘s Ryan Cooper notes that “The world is putting America in quarantine.” (The piece was written before the new case rates began hitting over 40,000 on a daily basis, as they have this past week.)

Cooper largely credits Donald Trump for that. He writes:

A nation that could elect Donald Trump is deeply, deeply sick. […] When a country is as gangrenous as the United States, the rot tends to spread through its entire system sooner or later.

But the disease that, for Cooper, is represented by Trump is not so easy to quarantine or excise. It is not just that of poor leadership coupled with an underfunded public health care system that has become deeply mismatched with state and local needs and capacities. It is a disease with multiple layers that can be found in variations all around the world, from Brazil to Russia to Turkey to the Philippines.

To successfully diagnose and treat a disease, one must understand its symptomatology and its etiology (causes). With that goal in mind, I want to consider some of the factors involved in what we might tentatively call “Trump-like derangement syndrome,” or “TLDS” (which bears no necessary relation to “Trump derangement syndrome,” though a few of its causes might). I use this term as a placeholder to indicate that the problems of the United States appear (for many) to be linked to its president, but that there may be other conditions similar to it in other countries around the world, and that its causes are still to be worked out.

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I’m reading Shoshana Zuboff’s widely lauded The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which some have placed alongside Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century as essential reading for understanding today’s global economy.

The big conceptual idea I find most useful in it is its insistence that we are in the midst of a “fourth great transformation” (to use Karl Polanyi’s terminology), with “resources” — specifically, land, labor, money, and behavior — being extracted from the social relations and moral obligations within which they had previously been embedded, to become something new.

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Yesterday was a perfect illustration of how exciting (and bewildering) it can be to read the U.S. national news. Here’s a multiple-choice quiz about it.

Which of the following occurred yesterday?

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Here’s a preview in section headings of the book I’m currently writing. It presents a way of thinking about images, what they’ve done for people, and how all of that figures into the contemporary world of digital media. It then applies that way of thinking to three sets of images: about humans as the stars of the “AnthropoScene,” about animals at its edges, and about gods and other mysteries at another set of edges. Or something like that.

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Social media debates over the J. K. Rowling “transphobia” flare-up have encouraged me to formulate my own position on all of this. I’m still in the midst of that and would be happy for feedback (respectful, please).

In general, I see this as an example of what happens when two social movements move forward in partial tension with each other, and when the points of tension appear more visible than the points of connection. The movements in this case may be 1970s style feminism and transgender rights, but similar dynamics can be found in other situations. Social movements aren’t all equal and they call upon varying forms of engagement and evaluation, but social media, especially of the rapid-fire kind (like Twitter), tend to bring out the tensions rather than the potentials for synthesis. That’s where there might be a lesson in all of this.

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A social media conversation prompted me to dig up something I had written in my notebook years ago after reading Serhii Plokhy’s masterful book on “premodern identities” in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Which in turn prompted me to realize that coronavirus provides an answer to the question I had just finished writing an article about — what it means to be “posthuman” (and why I find that term inadequate).

The question is “who are we?” The answers that have been provided over the centuries fall into three general categories:

  • “We are X” (name your ethnic/national/cultural identity),
  • “We are human” (the modern/modernist answer), or
  • “We are something else (but not X and not exactly just human)” (e.g., animals, Devo, spirits in a material world, cyborgs, posthuman, becoming this or that, blah blah blah).

Here’s my contribution to answering that question.

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A casual comment on a minor article in a provincial newspaper in a faraway country (Ukraine) got me going on a response to what is, essentially, the white world’s default position on all things racial. (Social media comments, as a rule, aren’t indicative of anything, but this one is so symptomatic it’s worth examining.)

The comment, on an article about the George Floyd demonstrations, reads in part (in my translation):

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In a week of startling developments, some things still sound like they’re from The Onion. Or at least Harper’s Findings. They aren’t.

In a week of police riots capping decades of ethnic violence in a country torn asunder by authoritarianism, a dismal economy, and plague, police responding to a bee sting were attacked by a swarm of nearly 40,000 Africanized bees. Elsewhere, police “kettled” demonstrators and repeatedly charged at them, shoving them onto sidewalks, and striking them with batons.

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As I explain in Shadowing the Anthropocene, process-relational philosophy in a Peircian-Whiteheadian vein takes aesthetics to be first, ethics to be second, and logic (which, in our time, we need to think of also as eco-logic) to be third.

This is not a temporal sequence, but a logical one: aesthetics is found in the response to the firstness of things, their immediate, uninterpreted presence to us; ethics — in the response to a concrete, empirically encountered other; and logic — in the response to the patterns those encounters and appearances take. Each of them is a “normative science,” a way of cultivating one’s character in the world, so each takes repetition, and the difference found between repetitions, as its way of being, of becoming, and of inhabiting the world.

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