Saturday, September 11, 2010

Virus and Insignificance

I seem to be finally appreciating the significance of the "viral" capacity of the Internet. Basically, it flaunts Andy Warhol's most famous declaration. When he proclaimed that everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes, he was basically making a statement about the interaction between human attention and the machinery of public relations. Apparently, one of the ways in which the Internet has changed everything is that it has reworked that interaction. In the world the Internet has made, you can "go viral" and hold on to your Internet-based fame for as long as the virus propagates; and that propagation can extend beyond the Internet itself, as we have seen in the books that have now been spawned from illiterate cheeseburger-loving cats.

Warhol's real insight, however, was that fame has nothing to do with signification, as may be seen in his own efforts to undermine, if not eliminate, signification from his creations. The Internet, on the other hand, has undermined Warhol. It has become the engine that endows the insignificant with signification, and it is through such signification that viral campaigns propagate and succeed. Ironically, the prime beneficiary of this sustained propagation of the insignificant is the consciousness industry. No longer do the agents of this industry have to design elaborate propaganda campaigns; they just have to keep the rest of us distracted with a sustained diet of the insignificant.

This week has brought us a truly ironic coupling of instances of signified insignificance. The more amusing was the decision of the coming issue of the Sunday Times Magazine to publish a wholesale rant against Lady Gaga by Camille Paglia. This has all the makings of classic French comedy, where the servant disguised as a prince does not realize that the princess is also a servant in disguise. Lady Gaga has never been anything more than an artifact of the whole viral promotion process. Her music happens to have more staying power than the songs of Ashley Alexandra Dupré (follow the hyperlink if you don't remember her); and, unlike those cheeseburger-loving cats, she has managed to escalate what she does to the level of live performance. However, Paglia insists on treating her as a "real performer," perhaps because Paglia herself is not attracting the attention she once did. (Note those scare quotes by the way. Paglia's standards for comparison are Marlene Dietrich and Madonna. Draw your own conclusions.)

However, if the misconceived signification of Lady Gaga is little more than farce, what are we to make of Terry Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center (not to be confused with his more talented namesake from Monty Python)? Here is a man whose flock would not fill the building in which I have my condominium, who has achieved worldwide significance through the ability of the media to surf the crest of a viral wave. Our own Secretary of State was prescient enough to observe, in an interview, that the media were as instrumental as Jones himself in jeopardizing relations between the United States and any Muslim community in the world. What we may have learned this week about the consequences of our Internet culture is that there is no longer any such things as "fringe lunacy" (for want of a better phrase). Those who preach the gospel of the "long tail" must realize that beyond its marketing implications lies the precept that even the most remote statistical outlier can now be endowed with far more significance (social, rather than statistical) than it merits. This is no longer the age when a harmless crank is good for little more than an appearance or two on the Tonight show. Everything matters, which means that everything is a potential threat. This is what happens when a symbiotic relationship emerges from the culture of the Internet and the culture of fear.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The "viral" phenomenon has a number of aspects worth considering in this context, both positive and negative. On a positive note, it is an expression of culture that is not and cannot be dictated by corporate interests (in the case of "memes" like the lolcats). This is significant because when most people talk about culture, what they are really talking about is usually some large corporation's financial interests. On the negative side, viral marketing was developed by the PR industry to compensate for a fragmented advertising network; that said, it makes (or, in the case of the FaceBook "bra" incident, trains, or acculturates) people to do much of advertisers' work for them (disseminating a message). People wind up getting enthusiastic about selling somebody else's product to their friends. That so many people are training themselves to be effective marketers -- without products -- constitutes a rich resource beyond what even the likes of Edward Bernays would have imagined.