Archive for the ‘self-hypnosis’ Category

The Hermenuetics of Suspicion

March 13, 2010

The full cranial submersion of grad school has turned me into something of an interpretive monster. I can no longer seem to shut off the critical apparatus that ticks away in my head like a moth picking at the threads of an old sweater. The hermeneutics of suspicion that sees in all manner of texts (from poetry to movies to advertisements and radio spots) hidden power structures, unacknowledged interests, disavowed knowledge and systematic silences is a product of the critical tradition, from Nietzsche to the Frankfurt school and beyond that I have been immersed in for the past year and a half of studies.

So perhaps it is only natural that I should see hidden manipulation in hockey games, and that a movie I would have whole-heartedly embraced a couple of years ago should seem like the coming of age fantasy of bourgeoisie art brats. People wrongly confuse critical theory with its simple sibling, the conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories imagine that there must be someone, perhaps a small group of trans-national businessmen and political leaders, running the whole show and keeping the people down with their manipulations. Critical theory, on the other hand, helps point out concrete ways in which the dimensions of social exploitation and power imbalances are concealed in the everyday culture that we take for second nature.

The fact is, human society has, to date, always been the site of gross power imbalances and exploitation, though these social relations take on different forms in different periods. Modern mass consumer culture’s democratic myth of chips and televisions for everyone has covered over the uneven territory of opportunity and wealth distribution, making these disequilibriums appear to be random irregularities of fate on the impersonal wheel of fortune. The ideology of individualism and personal responsibility has been internalized by the people to such an extent that anyone who points out structural injustices is perceived as a reactionary conspiracy theorist (or perhaps a quaint, now harmless communist). Rather than admit to the subjugation we labour under (a realization which hurts), everyday anger and frustration is displaced on “fat people” or “welfare bums”, or SUV owners. This is the process of hegemony at work: subjugation is internalized and hence unrecognized; the true sources of our pain are projected outward, where displaced resentment insures that we never cultivate the sense of solidarity that would lead to actual community and resistance.


So even if the conspiracy theorists were in essence right, the paranoiac stance ensures that their suspicions will never lead to substantial change. Fighting the system involves, not overthrowing society as given, but establishing a co-existent counter system that disrupts the given regime’s ability to divide and conquer, and to rule by dissimulation. It is this possibility that makes me think there is an important future for the discipline of cultural studies (and for history, English, and the “human sciences” in general) as a series of techniques for decoding the sophisticated world of information and ideology that electrical culture amplifies to the nth degree. An old Zen proverb is instructive here. The poet claims that before he studied zen, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers. Upon embarking on zen practice, mountains were suddenly no longer mountains and rivers were no longer rivers. But after passing through the needle’s eye of zen’s “gateless gate”, mountains became mountains again, and rivers resumed their natural courses.

A similar process seems to be playing itself out in my study of critical theory. If movies can no longer be movies, and video games no longer innocent entertainments, then perhaps it is best not to fight the process. A time may come when I can flip on the television without feeling my soul was at stake, but for the time being I’ll bury my head in some books and continue casting suspicious glances at the big screen of contemporary culture.

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