Saturday, August 13, 2011

Truth in the Age of Murdoch (rewrite)

That Rupert Murdoch is one of the most powerful men in the world is a statement which is on one hand self-evident and on the other unexpected and uncertain. Until recently, we haven’t heard much about the man in the news. And yet, that is his business, the news. As head of News International, he owns the biggest media corporation in the world. It is perhaps because this is his business that his power, and it’s true extent, remains shrouded in a certain degree of uncertainty.

His is, perhaps by the very nature of his business enterprise, an ambiguous sort of power, placed somewhere (but where exactly? can we say?) between the political, his own business interests and his company’s media output. In Britain, he has been called in front of a select committee to answer questions about the phone hacking scandal in his paper The News of the World. But questions are also being asked as to his relationships with the political class in that country and, by extension, the influence and power he wields over it.

The truth of his influence and power may turn out to be just as ambiguous as it first seems. Murdoch has always held that the press is reflective of society, and that people would read too much into it if they were to paint him as some machiavellian presence pulling all the strings, hidden behind some darkened veil. Perhaps he has a point. We may be giving him too much credit. We may be placing his media in a position that it simply does not hold - one where it sways the public in profound and controlling ways to do the bidding of Murdoch and the ruling class. He is a godlike being in this basic reading, which itself is a misunderstanding of marxism.

But we cannot let Murdoch, his media, or the press in general off the hook so easily as to their influence throughout society. It is never a complete or total kind of influence, never a type of ceaseless control. However, to say that it is simply reflective of society is, again, not the full story. The ambiguity of Murdoch’s power begins to emerge. Perhaps through this ambiguity he could gain more power, simply through the perception that he could sway the hearts of a nation, or at least his papers could. This seems to have been the perception among the political class, from Tony Blair to David Cameron. But what is the nature of this ambiguity?

Jacques Derrida’s notion of the archive is useful here. For Derrida, ‘the archive’ is a process through which we both adhere and change the meaning of a central concept which is being written about. In Archive Fever Derrida is concerned with the Freudian archive (though he warns us against defining completely the limits of such a singular ‘archive’). What concerns us here is the process of news gathering. It is linked intensely with the state in most cases, at least traditionally - this is changing with the broader sweeps of change that are happening throughout the world. But when Murdoch cemented his ‘power’ in the second half of the twentieth century, this most certainly was the case.

Thus you get titles such as The Irish Times which is, first and foremost, concerned with the affairs of the nation. It says so in the title. It is known as the paper of record, and has an air of authority (verging on stuffiness) which allows us to say, with a certain degree of confidence, that it at least holds as its primary goal to be the archive of the nation.

Moving across the pond, the same is true of the papers in Britain. Make no mistake - this is where Murdoch’s power begins. Derrida holds that there can be no power without control of the archive, pointing to the etymology of the word ‘archive’, in ancient Greek ‘arche’, the place where the records are kept and also the magistrates house. Derrida seems to be saying that political power begins with control of an archive, some sort of claim of holding a special insight into a particular organising principle or forced (never in a completely successful manner) limits of a given archive. An archive is not just of something, it is also for that same thing. The state, for a national newspaper is that archive.

For a business man to be in control of such an entity at first seems deeply troubling. What if his interests are also in some way peddled through his newspapers? That is a question we have to deal with, but first we should return to the question of the archive, as Derrida would put it, or to the question of the process of recording events of and for a given nation state.

Derrida’s account of the archive is one which both adheres to something in a conservative fashion, but at the same time seeks to change and subvert, or add to the debate, or get a fresh angle on a certain event. In this way, it has a radical nature where it is effectual. In the case of news, Murdoch’s excuse of the reflective nature of the press perhaps hides the radical nature of the newspaper as a force within society. Simply through the process of recording it defines, in a rather enigmatic and ambiguous way, how certain events are to be perceived, and even how they are to be dealt with. The newspaper de facto becomes a political entity. So, what of Murdoch and his empire of news?

He has a certain monopoly over the newspaper industry in Britain, especially with regard to the tabloids. They are both provocative and salacious, often pushing the boat with regard to taste. But what is this issue of taste? It’s subversion seems to lie with the subversion of public and private, of boundaries set between that with is defined as outside and inside. Even notions of truth are bound up in notions of outside and inside, in that, in traditional formulations of truth, the outside appearance conceals something inside. And what is inside is perceived as truth.

This is present in modern science in a hugely successful way, in all major areas of science, such as biology and cells in the body, or physics with the atoms in things, or the stuff that makes up atoms. Such a principle, such a way to truth, has been hugely successful in the last century, in many areas of human life.

What of the moral aspect of this formulation of truth, an inner core of ever increasing reality (increasing in quality, if not in quantity)? The examples I have used so far hardly seem like bad things. But yet, they pervade our society, as ideals, as ideology, in a way which makes it hard for us to make that call. I cannot make it here, only highlight it. However, I can say that there are, or may be, some unsettling aspects to this formulation of truth and it’s revelation within. We live in an age of truth. And, as with any age, not everything smells like roses, so to speak.

What does this all have to with Murdoch, his empire, his news? Like I mentioned before, Murdoch’s paper pushed the boat in their salaciousness, their gossip, and the likelihood that they will reveal hidden lives of public people, the truth of public people, just as a scientist searches for an atom in a piece of metal, or a Freudian psychoanalyst searches for the unconscious drives behind conscious acts. There was this hidden world. And Murdoch’s promise, a tantalising promise, was the revealing of this hidden world. Murdoch was Aslan, and he was going to show us around Narnia.

I should say here that Murdoch is an example, and by no means the exception. But he is a most timely and relevant example, and I can say that, had he not been in the news so much, I probably would not have written this, ironically.

People wanted this sort of thing, they cried out for it, demanded it. It began as a genuine desire to end certain repressions and societal placings (racial, sexual, etc.) that effected whole swathes of people in negative ways. Here was a desire to traverse the boundaries of society, the end them. This failed, even though the idea lived on, only to be commodified and packaged and fed to your average apparently apolitical person of the early twenty first century.

And Murdoch certainly capitalised (pun intended) on this desire. And it was desire. Desire for desire itself, desire for truth, to traverse the boundary of the outside appearance and the inner truth, or what is perceived to be as such. What is this traversing, but desire itself? When we imagine an outside, of ourselves, are we not attempting such a journey? And is this not the source of desire itself, imagining the beyond, or the inner, the other that lies beneath or beyond the surface? Is this traversing not also impossible to complete, or robbed of a sense of completion, or the act of giving it completion, because this completion has already happened, unnoticed? Such a limit would set up the conditions for desire, for the unfulfilled which desperately needs filling.

If we desire the breaking or traversing of boundaries, then what do we desire, but desire itself? Truth, then, in the modern sense, becomes the true expression of desire. But, in doing so, it must also be robbed of its purity, be uncertain, in order to properly be considered a truth. It must be plagued with doubt. Because, if it is not, then desire (not the desire or a desire, but desire itself) is fulfilled. As a drive, as a principle, as something originary, always-already, we cannot dismiss it as such, only, perhaps, in a death.

Are we not here considering its death, where it may actually gain its goal, perhaps even as it is designated as a fiction, it reaches this pureness, for it is never again mulled over, never again the cause of fights or anxiety, never open to its own uncertainty, which it feels and must feel in its life. I will return to this notion of the fulfilling of desire in death, or in this case that truth’s goal - it’s pure, un-conjectured reality - lies in its own death. Indeed, it is a very important aspect to truth when considering its formulation in what I have called (with tongue placed firmly in cheek) the age of Murdoch.

In life, then, truth is anxious, always being second guessed, as if the concept inspires this second guessing and conjecture itself. So what is the state of truth in the age of Murdoch? As I have shown, the search for truth is intimately linked with desire itself. If we live in an age of truth, as science and Freud seem to show, then we also live in an age of desire. If we consider our culture of consumerism, then this surely resonates with what we see around us. And truth, like desire, is anxious, uncertain, and likely to stir up these emotions in people that lay claim to or is in the throws of either of these concepts.

Murdoch plays upon desire through this revealing of truth in his tabloids, of an inner life contradictory to or in excess of a public appearance. But there is no ending, for the search reaches limits that it cannot feel but knows are there, uncertain limits of doubt, an ending which is neither complete nor profound, at least not in itself. For, the object, elevated beyond all comprehension through this excess of desire, is never enough when desire is out of control and not tempered by the measuring of expectation and sober thought. In such a case, the object is effectively destroyed in the equation, and all that is left is desire itself, the drive to traverse or break down barriers. Or, to put it in another way, for the desire for truth, in, of and for itself.

We can take one prominent case which allows us to further examine the state of truth in the age of Murdoch, that of Max Mosley and his nazi sex orgy. The story, printed in The News of the World, goes like this. Max Mosley, the head of Formula One, was involved in an orgy with some prostitutes. But wait. It gets better. Some of the girls were dressed as nazis, and some as concentration camp prisoners. What makes all this infinitely more interesting is that this story is in keeping with a certain formulation as to what is generally understood as human behaviour. You see, Mosley’s father had ties with British fascism, and was a nazi sympathiser. All of a sudden a kind of twisted sexual fantasy becomes a personal story - the story of Mosley’s life.

As I said before, this all fits a particular formulation or expectation of the human - essentially, it fits a paradigm that attempts to explain an aspect of the question (always a question, never a given for the conscious mind) of what it means to be human. This formulation is loosely based on Freud’s theory of the return of the repressed. Mosley, a successful man by any account, has never shown any public signs of his father’s misdemeanours having affected him - at least not in public. As I have mentioned, in prominent contemporary formulation of truth we view it as a probe inwards, or a disrobing of the falsity of the exterior appearance. We view it as a traversing of said distinctions - outside and inside - and this is the very path of desire itself. And so, truth and desire are connected in a myriad of strange and mysterious ways.

What the story of the nazi sex orgy shows us is the path to truth as being a revealing or traversing of distinctions. The truth revealed afterwards then fits perfectly into a dominant paradigm of how we view the human - that of the return of the repressed, the return of Mosley’s father’s ghost, its failures and misdemeanours, and the effect that they simple must have had on Mosley. It seems like a certain truth, one which is not simply a revealing of the inside of the outside, but also one which proves a paradigm - in this case the Freudian paradigm of the return of the repressed. What’s more, it proves it in such an obvious and blatant way as to leave no doubt in the readers’ minds that, under the surface, the sins of the father haunt Mosley, bubbling under, exploding in nazi sex orgies.

As I said before, truth’s uncertainty in its own life (when it is considered as a truth or a proof, an explanation) is one of its defining characteristics. It seems that there is something too neat about the Mosley case. It is too deterministic, as if Freudian theory is proven through the case, beyond all doubt, in crystal clear terms. It is not only the uncertainty of truth - the uncertainty of a traversing between the outside and the inside, or the anxiety of desire - that makes me question the whole story. It is the neatness with which Freudian theory fits in such a simple and set way, like a child putting a shape through a hole of the same shape. It seems too easy, putting it simply.

You see, I am skeptical that human nature can ever be completely divisible by definable or coherent limits because it is human thought carrying out this act. Essentially, I don’t believe in such a narcissistic, closed system. The reflection upon the nature of the human - one the highest of them all - is never definite, never answered completely. Human nature shifts with these definitions to a point beyond, allowing such definitions to falter and fail, only to gain new life as belief or ideology. As I said before, the life of truth is uncertain and anxious - in death, it can be effectual, can grow, can enter the great pantheon of human ideas, can inspire, influence, and effect without that oppressive feeling that comes with a declaration of truth.

(A good example of this, for me, is Derrida’s re-appropriation of psychoanalysis, where he takes the object of Freud’s theories - the mind - and casts it aside, then taking some key aspects of the theory and using them with regard to language and text in the general sense. This is a very large part of what deconstruction is. Put Derrida had first to discount Freud, to, in hyperbolic terms, kill psychoanalysis before his great re-appropriation could take place.)

Going back to Mosley, at least with regards to the modern formulation of truth, it seems that something is a little off. There is one final twist in the tale, a crucial twist, one which calls into question truth and its connection with desire, calls into question even the traditional formulation of truth as I described it - as a revealing or a traversing - or at least subverts the normal revelation, followed by the anxiety of life and desire, followed by death and a passing out of truth, but perhaps towards possible re-appropriation, belief and effectuality. The twist is that none of it is true. The tabloid set up Mosley. He was fond of prostitutes, but the rest was a complete set up.

In a sense, the problem of truth itself is nullified in this case. A journalist, presumably, paid someone to set up Mosley. They assumed this about Mosley, or wondered how a dark aspect of his past haunted his life, and they came up with a story with a certain element of sensationalist logic to it. And perhaps the salaciousness of Mosley’s fondness for prostitutes was enough to trigger this sensationalist logic. Then the story was joined with some other hidden aspect of Mosley’s life, one which has never come to see the light of day (that his father was involved with British fascism) in the sense that it never seemed to effect his life. What is assumed here is that it does and must effect his life. And with the first salacious detail that comes to light, comes this other aspect as a raison d'ĂȘtre for his personal quirk.

That the story went so far as to involve him being set up by The News of the World exposes a seeming lack of a need for the truth principle. Or, maybe, a lack of a need for the uncertainty that has always plagued the truth principle. We live in an age of truth - the danger lies with attempts and assumptions in certain quarters of a truth principle without the uncertainty. This is the dream - utopia itself. It is also thoroughly, and profoundly, impossible.

Do we here see the death of truth, or its passing into fiction and non-truth? No. Rather, what we see is the attempt to nullify the uncertainty of truth. It is an attempt to present the death of truth in the time of its own life. Like the archive, we do not know the meaning of truth until after the fact, until what I have called here its death. In the case of Mosley, the meaning is contained within the ‘truth’, or the apparent revealing of the inner life of Mosley. Here is an attempt to merge the life and death principles into a truth without uncertainty, which automatically fits a well-known paradigm, that of the Freudian return of the repressed.

It is an attempt to bridge the gap within truth itself - between its own life and death. It represents a sort of desire without boundaries, intent as it is to disrupt and subvert even the truth principle itself. It could also be seen as a desire to find the truth within truth. These two words seem to crop up again and again, and it seems to me that, given the entanglement that they both share with each other, that a broad sweeping statement can be made, taking into account that it is a broad sweeping statement. We live in an age of desire and truth. We are obsessed. The former word signifies, perhaps, this stage of late global capitalism, characterised by over-consumption, perhaps to the point of no return. The latter word signifies a certain psychology of inner life and is connected with Freud, but stretches further - an archive whose limits can scarcely be defined - to encapsulate science and the burden of proof so prevalent in our age. If one simply looks at the atheist theist debate, one can see this obsession with the truth, with quantifiable things, with the inner life versus the outer appearance. From an atheist perspective, the outer supernatural appearance of religion hides a corrupt and false inside.

Of course, one could say that religious truth is a different formulation than scientific truth, but is it really? Or, can religion tell us as allegory about the nature of truth, or the nature of our formulation of truth? If we go back, for a moment, to the current formulation, we see that there is uncertainty in its life, through anxiety, and certainty in its death, or meaning and re-appropriation.

Is this not like the life and death of Jesus, and his subsequent resurrection? In life, everyone doubts the truth of Jesus except for a few true believers. In his death, it is the true believers who doubt his truth, only for the resurrection of Jesus to happen. He even has a new body. But he is still dead - he did not cheat death. He died only to rise again, in a new form. Is this not an allegory for the truth as we know it today? Or, did devotion throughout the ages to Christianity - along with Greek and Eastern influences on the religion - actually help solidify the current path of truth, that of its life and death and resurrection? I cannot answer this question. To raise it, I think, is enough. In this formulation, truth must traverse life and death. Whether its subsequent resurrection points to a triumph in the crossing, or a failed crossing, perhaps lends to the uncertainty of truth.

Truth then - revelation - is what is at stake in Murdoch’s enterprise. And it is perhaps pertinent that it is happening now for, if we take the Christian connection, and consider the decline of that religion throughout the western world, then it would follow the trend to subvert this formulation of truth. And this decline comes with a certain desire to do away with the religion, do away with the old ways. This has been a dominant trend within the twentieth century. Has this all gone too far? Are we staring down the void of desire, without object or meaning? The problems of the global capitalist system, with regards to the greed of bankers, the recession, the climate, seem to indicate that we have

I began by speaking of the archive and Murdoch’s control of certain media outlets. What does it mean that a paper holds its allegiance to the country where its based on one hand (outer, perhaps) and to a rich business man on the other (inner, perhaps)? Does Murdoch own the news? Physically perhaps, and perceptually, in the eyes of some British politicians, perhaps also. He has an influence upon what is sold. His titles have purposefully pushed this boundary of truth and desire. They fuel desire in their obsession with celebrity. They promote a view that man can be understood in Freudian terms, and also veer on the side of the type of individualism championed by Reagan and Tatcher. This is no mistake, for Murdoch has frequently allied himself with such neo-conservatism. This is reflected in his papers.

If, like the archive, his papers reflect and effect society and people, then this stands as an organising principle of some of his titles. They stand to propagate the notion of the individual above all else, of personal desire, of desire itself. Desire unleashed. And this suits big business and his own interests. So it is not simply that his papers peddle a certain ideology, or even that the peddle an ideology he believes in or lives by (which I’m sure he does). What they do is peddle an ideology from which he only stands to gain. It is almost vampiric.

In an interview a person close to Murdoch revealed that he is obsessed with increasing circulation. And he knows how to do this. He taps into people’s primal urges. That is why his ideology is desire itself. If you stimulate that, you can sell oil to Arabs, so to speak. The unpleasant side effect, unfortunately, is the threat of destruction and subversion of not just certain values, but to all of them. The unleashing of desire, coupled with the obsession with truth, may lead us to a very unpleasant place indeed. Truth itself will even eat itself, if the Mosley case is anything to go by. And this is not an isolated incident of this kind of skewing and breaking of traditional formulations of truth. One only has to look at the Murdoch owned Fox News to see a twenty-four hour news channel that seems to hold such subversion at its core.

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