Politicizing your lunch

A little more from A User’s Guide. This is from Ballard’s 1971 essay about Ralph Nader.

The important point, though, is that Nader is unloading a powerful sense of anxiety and guilt onto a huge range of commonplace activities. Sooner or later, I would guess, these will crystallize around one major subject, a simple formula of antagonism, unease, and wish-fulfilment that will play the same role in the technological landscape that cruder formulas played in the political one. Inevitably, I suppose, the consumer society must produce its own unique demagogue, but this sort of dictator may well be difficult to recognize and unseat

Well, Nader’s own intervention in US politics developed not necessarily to our advantage – no Bush, no Trump – although more through its unintended consequences than anything like Ballard’s remark. That said, can anyone deny that something like unloading a powerful sense of anxiety and guilt onto a huge range of commonplace activities is exactly what you find when you hop on Twitter, open a newspaper, or watch television? An enormous amount of creative effort, intellectual sophistication, and advertising spend is going into doing just that, all around us, all the time.

A lot of it comes from people who could broadly be said to agree with Ralph, but this is not only a partisan phenomenon – there are two sides in the culture war and one of them is just as keen to encourage you to politicise your lunch as the other. In the UK, while a little industry exists in denouncing this or that as being well Brexit, I have literally marched against extreme-right street militants who organized themselves under the resounding title of Fish and Chips.

As for Ballard’s prediction, it doesn’t seem to have come true yet, but one way of reading the last minatory sentence there is that the future consumer-oriented demagoguery might be distributed and participatory rather than centralized and hierarchical. There’s surely plenty of that about. As a phenomenon this doesn’t have to have any partisan identification or indeed to be value-laden, and in fact nothing would be more Ballardian than if it tended to emerge from our relationship with the underlying technology and its affordances and therefore tended to adopt similar forms independent of textual content. Twitter subculture is the fusion of 4Chan shitposting with LiveJournal forum drama; Chinese wumaodang display similar operational art and tactics to Russian robots and the American trolls who respond to them. In this case, the crystallization happens around method rather than content – it’s whatever drives the numbers.

Another form of “major subject” you might crystallize around is the emergence of a leader, and obviously there is Donald Trump.

4 Comments on "Politicizing your lunch"

  1. I have to re-read Ballard’s essays, I’ve not read them in many year

    This is particularly insightful:

    > future consumer-oriented demagoguery might be distributed and participatory rather than centralized and hierarchical

    I suspect it will also be uneven in focus across groups. I sat through an interesting dinner out with a some staff from another organization and one of them spent the evening systematically listing what was and wasn’t good enough (beer, food, consumer goods) by her criteria (carbon footprint, transport distance, sexist undertones, dietary benefit). The others didn’t disagree with her but she seemed to be establishing some sort of status by rendering judgement.

    Of course there’s no way to consistently apply such broad criteria across the consumer landscape, resulting in islands of arbitrary compromise and tradeoff, and likely disdain and criticism between them. So “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” as Gibbings said.


  2. “Resounding title of Fish and Chips”

    Fighting In Somoene’s House.
    Causing Havoc In Public Spaces.

    Wanabee squaddies? Play soldiers?

    Certainly a triumph of form over content.


  3. Getting people worried about something in new and innovative ways is a common form of marketing. See also, recently, fear of spoilers.


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