009 Context (and) Collapse

On meaning and future ruin, "as we continue"

The anthropologist Michael Wesch has promoted the idea of “context collapse,” which occurs in mediated environments when the information that would have framed a particular message or object closes in, becoming smooth and simultaneous with other (possible) contexts. When communicating, we orient ourselves to our audience in some way—but the “smooth,” disseminated, and potentially public nature of the Internet forces us to reckon with these messages breaking down. We’re prompted to address multiple potential audiences all the time. I think this is one of the reasons for the generation that first got Facebook accounts to often limit (or abandon) usage after a while; it’s weird to speak to everyone one knows—aunts, Instagram buddies, professors, childhood friends, an acquaintance from a friend’s barbecue in 2012. There’s little reasonable expectation of context, to guide a lot of that communication.

Not long ago, I came across a scholarly article whose thesis boiled down to the redundant idea, “these objects are a part of the historical circumstances of which they are part.” The point of such a tautology is really a gesture to peers to the effect that one can’t (or more implicitly, shouldn’t) evaluate something—a TV show, a piece of software—without recourse to its historical or political context. This applies to its “origins” as well as its “reception.” It never exists in a vacuum. This is a truism among most corrigible intellectuals. Now, objects get effectively repurposed all the time; “context” doesn’t operate like the doctrine of original sin, exactly. But as scholars and critics will note, the history of that very repurposing is necessary to account for, as well.

Curiously, one rarely hears the opposite argument in equivalent terms. Scholars and critics don’t really say outright, “this should be considered in a vacuum,” or “the political context in which this was made couldn’t possibly matter.”

No, what some scholars and critics are more likely to say, if they are taking that latter perspective, is something closer to, “yes, Athenian philosophy arose in a slave society but its ideas are not dependent on that fact and are useful to any of us.” Or maybe, “it was a different time then, we shouldn’t apply our contemporary liberal standards of race and gender to this 1930s Hollywood movie.” In other words, the claim is that contexts have changed sufficiently that it is permissible to bracket off unsavory parts of those contexts in order to use or enjoy the object in question.

Over and over, the political question is deciding when or where that line is drawn.

Personally, I don’t think we’re ever going to get purity by dealing with human things. I’m typing these words, and you are likely reading them, on devices whose creation is steeped in resource exploitation, child labor, and blood money. We should never forget that when we’re caught in an argument online about whether our favorite new sitcom is “problematic” or whatever.

And for this reason, I’m not put off by the simple fact that a cultural object comes to us from a different time and place, representing different goals or values. The most unimpeachable ethical, moral, and political credentials of here and now may look preposterous in other times and places.

I recently revisited Jonah—Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976), Alain Tanner’s Swiss-French collaboration with John Berger, which was once a totemic movie for the humanist left. I’ve felt an instant rapport with a few people I’ve talked to over the years in part because of this common touchstone. At the same time, Jonah is a movie that seems only to ever be invoked wistfully and in hindsight. As soon as it came out, it had already forked into a defiant future that was not to come.

A loose “network narrative,” Jonah concerns a handful of men and women who mostly fall into neat heterosexual couplings as they attempt to navigate humane ways of living in the wake (or failure) of May 1968 and the more general sociopolitical unrest of the 1960s. Steven Shaviro wrote, “You might say it is about forms of Western European subjectivity in the wake of massive disappointment, and about the ongoing negotiations between private lives and public hopes.”

The film follows characters in numerous loose plot threads that fall generally into one of two groups: small acts of resistance to encroaching commercial imperatives (such as refusing to sell a farm, or refusing to charge grocery store customers for some of their items) and concern with the education and welfare of children and future generations (summed up by a radical, bookish history professor and another who seeks a form of free or alternative homeschooling). All of these issues are, however, related to one another. Jonah is a great film to discover as a teenager, perhaps. That’s when I watched it. It connects a radical sense of questioning with a sketch of a possible answer, while nodding to how difficult and maybe fruitless this struggle can be.

Shaviro’s own 2016 rundown of the film, forty years after he first watched it, is a really good account of Jonah but more to the point, it’s an account of the awkward place it would occupy for today’s altermondialists. He admits to feeling great affection for the film, but he’s almost embarrassed about it. It’s maybe too “lite,” too charming, too limited by its straight-white-eurocentric perspectives, to remain a beacon for today’s leftisms. It’s a gasp from a long gone era. It’s an Amélie in a world that needs an antiracist general strike. Or so one could argue …

Tanner and Berger’s film does not give us any answers; it is about people trying to seek out their own answers. The fact of the film’s datedness is I think evidence of how the film spoke to something alive, and took risks.

Indeed, Jonah is not Godard (not any of his periods but certainly not his 1970s work), nor is it like the most formally radical and militant cinema being made at that time.

But what if we didn’t think of Jonah as a diluted, lightweight attempt at the kind of film it’s not, but, instead, a robustly convivial project? What if it’s a movie that was meant to make sense not to the most bookishly radical cinephiles, but instead to curious teachers and social workers and small farmers? (Some of the people I’ve talked to over the years who knew and liked Jonah were not “film people.”) By convivial I mean, it’s a film one can live alongside and grow with; it can be a tool and a well. It is not a howl in favor of Sade, i.e., it is not an act of negation, it is not a deliberate gesture of aesthetic limitation and refusal. It doesn’t need to be a complete gesture, or a film for all days, a film to end and eclipse other films. It is a garden. This, to me, has radical potential in the best sense of the word. The reason I think so has a lot to do with climate change.

As we continue into our heated collapse, certain strains of capitalist and (sometimes nominally) socialist thought and practice will continue for a while, of course, but huge and formerly comfortable populations will have to contend with starker and more demoralizing realities. Resources will be scarcer and basic skills and tools will be useful to recover: how to grow and store food, how to make soap and candles, how to communicate across distances, how to live with interruptions in electricity, etc. I’m not trying to romanticize the apocalypse here; in fact we won’t realize a lot of this as it happens, and we’ll likely think of these (already underway) changes as supplements and simplifications of how we live. We’ll shrug and try to continue on as best we can, and that will be the good scenario. The bad scenario will foreground epidemics and surveillance and jackboots and starvation well beyond the realities of rich Western life today: many, many people will continue into that future, too. We’re already sort of there.

If we exist at all, we need to figure out ways to co-exist with one another, with comrades, sure, but also with neighbors who might not be comrades. The fragmented subjectivities of Jonah combine a handful of people who are all “fellow travelers” with one another—border-crossing practitioners of la perruque, Tantric hippies, organic farmers, communist history teachers, trade unionists. They might broadly agree with one another only when contrasted with the interests of land developers and retail managers. But even that isn’t really enough; Jonah ends, of course, on a note of defiantly impractical optimism. It’s not raging against the machine while the adrenaline pulses and you’re surrounded by your allies. It’s waking up and riding your bike to work alone in the cold morning as part of your plan to better raise the young.

I think I’ll return to Jonah in the future; I have only scratched the surface here.

As we continue to learn ways to live with the fact that our communications have possibly huge and curious digital afterlives, that our contexts indeed will collapse, we have to continue building on human ways of learning to live with friction.