Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Peter Travers Misses the Point

The buzz around The Social Network has become too deafening to avoid, which, in terms of box office numbers, may make it the most successful self-fulfilling prophecy in the history of the film industry.  The real point however is that the buzz has become its own self-fulfilling prophecy, engendering higher and higher levels of buzz, each of which survives strictly as noise masquerading as signal.  The whole process has become a monstrous carnival of significations that undermine themselves.  Were Jacques Derrida still alive, he might well be drooling in envy.  There is a pretty good chance that none of the agents involved in this process—the characters in the narrative, the makers of the film, and the subculture of those now writing about the film—ever knew (or cared) about Derrida's concept of différance;  but The Social Network may have embodied that concept better than any of Derrida's own efforts.

Those of us more interested in signal than in noise may be in the minority, and that just makes it even more of a challenge to try to construct a suitable filter.  Ultimately, however, we may be able to use the very Facebook concept of mindless self-promotion as a guideline.  Consider the extent to which Peter Travers' latest summary for Rolling Stone seems to have more to do with preening his own ego than with warranting his praise for the film:
Can a movie really define a generation? The Social Network comes damn close. It uses the tangled roots of Facebook, created by anti-social Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) to show how technology is winning the battle against actual human contact, creating a nation of narcissists shaping their own reality like a Facebook page. If youth can't see itself in this movie, it's just not paying attention.
Consider his invocation of the concept of narcissism.  The implication seems to be that there is something wrong with the failure of today's youth to "see itself in this movie;"  but he seemed to have missed the point that this is the fundamental symptom of narcissism.  This goes all the way back to the original mythological conception of Narcissus, so enamored of the image of the water that he could no longer grasp the relationship between image and self.  That particular lost grip on reality became the basis for narcissism making the leap from cautionary tale to symptom of psychopathology;  but for Travers narcissism seems to be just a word to attract the reader's attention, rather than an explanatory concept.

However, narcissism is not the only "complex word" (with apologies to William Empson) over which Travers trips.  The concept of attention is equally problematic.  Perhaps Travers is too stuck in the world of film to recognize that the media industry, taken as a whole, has not only commoditized attention but also turned it into a scarce commodity.  As I have previously suggested, those with power have discovered that distraction can be a useful tool when it comes to both maintaining and exercising authority.  The consciousness industry thrives through those who are "not paying attention;"  and, from this point of view, Facebook was just a happy accident for increasing the ranks of those "not paying attention" to the benefit of those committed to pulling the strings of others.

The question is not whether or not "youth" can "see itself in this movie."  The question is whether or not that "youth" can even grasp the concept of a cautionary tale, let alone the cautions themselves.  I find myself reminded (as I had been in 2007) of the sign I kept on the door of my office at the University of Pennsylvania:
You built the scaffold
You tied the rope
You put your head in the noose
And now you're complaining that the trapdoor opened
Will this be the epitaph of Travers' "youth?"  Since Travers' text came from Rolling Stone, perhaps the best way to address that question is with a quote from Bob Dylan:
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.
That "twist" on Dylan's words seems to provide the best reading of my own metaphor and of the folly of Travers' own efforts at critique.

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