Increasingly Recursive Gonzo Historian of the Present
Robert Manne is like a historian who, availing himself of a time machine, alights in the era of Joseph Stalin, travels to a farmhouse outside Moscow and begins telephoning insults to the dictator in order to demonstrate the intolerance of the regime. Or scrawls lengthy, signed indictments of Domitian on columns in the walkways of the Palatine in the AD90s in Rome.
Manne is a political theorist rather than a historian, and he does not have a time machine. The impossibility of time travel has been called into question in recent weeks as an extrapolation of rumoured ftl neutrinos, but the technology remains at best prototype. TT devices have not yet been advertised (the iPast 2, or Dual Core Galaxy Tab w/ 16 megapixel camera for snapping panoramic vistas while visiting previous eras via the new rechronising TPS-guided Android App).
The real signs that time travel may be possible will in any case precede the arrival of products. First we’ll detect the crude manipulation of the past by bright corporate marketers revising history for product placement. The idea is that by judiciously inserting millions of units of branded product at key points in time and space, market share can be won retrospectively from competitors.
Based on its innovative marketing strategies to this point, Apple, for example, would likely pursue this path given time travel technology. Before incorporating and marketing time travel into its phones, the first step the company would take would be to seed the past with Apple products, thereby normalising the widespread use of its computers decades before it actually became a reality.
The conventional wisdom that changes in the past made retroactively cannot be detected is bollocks. In fact there will be a series of anomalous shifts without good explanation. It will take experimentation, time and vast amounts of money to smooth out the process of massive product placement in the past: at first the effects will be noticeable.
Apple is the example here not out of spite, or because, sadly, co-founder Steve Jobs died today, but because the company has already performed a very similar trick. Strategy was this: about a decade ago Apple began seeding TV and movie land with Macs and then waited for the real world to catch up. You must have noticed this: was obviously a bit wrong, the Apple logo suddenly appearing in offices and living rooms in TV show after TV show, in films, even on news networks .. although nobody had ever seen anything like it real-world. While in actual life nearly everyone used PCs a parallel Mac-heavy reality was available on TV.
Apple’s strategy proved an entirely successful one – we have caught up. The strange Mac-dominated world inside television of several years ago is now a mirror reflection of the usual scene in cities, on campuses, in offices, living rooms, on public transport around the world. TV reality became normalised in due course in a Baudrillardy way. A forward-thinking marketing strategy.
But that’s a digression for another time. This is a post about the contemporaneous Manne.
Manne has no time machine facilitating excursion into history. He is discursing in the present. This is the uncomfortable thing about doing political theory not at a safe distance in time. The people being theorised about, analysed, and so forth, are extant and may take offense.
Nor, it should be noted, is his subject of analysis of the calibre of a a Stalin or a Roman Emperor God. The tyranny of Bad News, of the Australian and the broader Murdoch Empire is of a far more mediocre variety. The monsters of old reached down from above into the lives of citizens, who internalised the tyrant and behaved accordingly. News Limited – the Australian, the Daily Telegraph, Fox – bubbles up into the world from somewhere underground. It sucks decent people down into the mire from below.
It is not that there is a type of person to whom the Murdoch press appeals. It’s that Murdoch appeals to the worst, the grubbiest, in everyone. In so doing he fills the air with murk and grime. The content of his papers and TV networks titillates, cajoles, tantalises, fascinates, surprises. It never enriches, enhances, advances understanding, critique, or debate. His subeditors batten language down until it does the crude job their proprietor requires of it. Like the empire of the Packers, the monstrous News Corporation has the scope to uglify and cheapen entire civilisations. It’s what happens when the stupid come by great power.
Taking on this beast is, in a way, a dangerous path to tread. Not because of the content of flak. It’s mediocre stuff at best: the merit of the NewsCorp propaganda machine lies in volume rather than quality of prose.
News Corporation, as its Chairman and CEO says, is primarily a profit-making machine. This alone precludes it from excellence. But in a secondary way the job of the giant network of media channels is to promote the normalcy of a particular world-view.
Not much of what is said in the Australian or on Fox conveys much sense or has any depth. But it is said a lot. The effect of this kind of content is indirect. Very few ever actually come to accept the newspaper owner’s point of view. But people putting out this point of view seem to be everywhere. Murdoch’s media engine is designed for creating this effect. A sense of acceptance of public opinion constructed from ideas about other, more stupid people’s beliefs.
At this point most people – reasonable people – who were put off by the crass headline, have not yet read a Murdoch news story. But they begin to think someone must be taking this nonsense on board. Concerned, the reader flips through the pages. It’s all the same. And of, course it has a low sort of appeal. It’s easy to see why people are drawn in. It dawns that this is the sort of thing that people read every day – that the appalling opinions expressed here are regularly expressed and consumed. This is the ‘normal’ way of looking at the world. The horrified reader decides to keep an eye on it.
Manne may drown in others’ bile if he continues to attempt to keep a comprehensive record of the unfolding debate, but ther’s no danger of the rhetoric striking home with anyone. Continuing the epic project presents dangers because revisiting points in your own subjective history complicates things. Manne’s synchronous existence with the period under analysis makes him a pioneer – a historian of the very-near-present. And like a journalist too close to the subject, there is a danger of falling in.
Manne IS a historian in the broad sense that Everything is History, at least by the time human beings have perceived it, done cognition, said someting.. “I’m home” is history even before it’s said. The original analysis of The Australian in The Monthly is like a work of history in many ways – in style of analysis particularly – and it, together with the events it records, is history in fact. The ongoing work of the Monthly blog Left Right Left has the style of a historical work. It is also a blog about the immediate past: history is unfolding at a conveniently stately rate for making records as it recedes from short term memory.
The problem is that the history has become episodic, and the gonzo historian (well, political theorist) must keep going again and again into the recent past in order to recall another inane Australian op ed concerning his response to churlish op eds printed in the Australian in response to the essay Bad News in the Quarterly. He can’t stay and gather all the data because it’s not there yet. The next part of the record remains in his future.
Crossing your own path – subjective history – leads to complication, and eventually a surfeit of it. When Manne sits down to write anoter chapter in the saga of his interaction on his critique of the Australian he finds that he has become a character in the drama. Henceforth he must write himself in. Manne on the Australian becomes Manne on Manne on The Australian. When next he looks he sees that a second character – Manne – has become embroiled in the debate as well, attacked by critics of the Right immediately following his response to initial attack. Sitting down to chart this anomaly and at the same time respond to a new round of spiteful remarks from the News Limited stable (and twitterland) Manne is writing on Manne on Manne on Manne. The example demonstrates the danger of attempting to chart unfolding events of the present: not the rancour of the Powers under examination but Recursion, a power for which there is no redress.
Of course writing on the Recursion of Manne in this way carries its own inherent dangers of infinite scope.
The assertion that there has been a lack of corroboration of the critique of Bad News from News does seem accurate. But this may be attributed to the probable assumption that the Quarterly essay had done the job of describing the state of things as well as anyone could, and everyone could move on, having been provided a satisfying read surprising few.
It may have been seen that by and large Manne was merely taking the trouble to perform the sort of Herculean task performed on a daily basis by those given to such tasks. The job was done.
Regardless of the fact that his analysis of News is accurate, Manne has been beset. Flak has flown from the mucky channels of the Murdoch empire. He has fielded, responded, detailed various bits of discourse and public correspondence, which effort is rewarded with a new smattering of unkind references from the media behemoth. These are duly assimilated into the corpus as another round begins.
Now Robert Manne continues, like a character in a Borges story, on and on into infinite regress. As an inspired sally of the Culture Wars as well as an interesting metaphysical phenomenon, this descent into the spiralling intestine of the worm is well worth following.
A lone individual, in his one-sided battle – one giant brain versus a horde of tinier minds – is performing a critical service.