Notes on Notes on “Notes on Hype”
April 22, 2012

Rob Horning in The New Inquiry:

Hype already presumes that no one completely buys into it; the passive dope who just responds to hype with naive enthusiasm is obviously a straw man, the creation of which is hype’s chief achievement. Hype creates this stooge that makes us feel smart in being jaded about hype. Advertising generally works by trying to make audiences feel smart and insecure at the same time; it flatters us but makes us know that the flattery is conditional. Hype says: yeah, you are probably smarter than to fall unreservedly for this obviously overhyped thing, but still you better know about it so you know just why you haven’t fallen for it. As Powers notes, Through our engagement with hype “we are at once too savvy and not savvy enough.”

Rob’s talking about the private sector here, but is there any better way to describe avid campaign trail watchers than, “at once too savvy and not savvy enough?” It’s amazing, for example, just how closely Rob’s account of the life of a hyped product maps onto the arc of the “Obama ate a dog” meme. That meme doubtless enjoyed such a long time in the sun because the people who first hyped it wanted everyone else to buy it — but the savvy onlookers who mocked its insignificance and wove increasingly elaborate dog-eating puns surely extended the meme’s lifespan. In their hurry to show how smart they were for not falling for such a dumb story, they hyped it up some more.

But in that case, what’s actually being hyped? I would argue that what’s actually being sold — unbeknownst to the people doing most of the selling — is not one particular campaign meme, but a general assertion about the value of that genus of campaign memes. When Democratic pundit X tweets, “This Obama eats a dog story is really stupid and trivial” as if that’s news, they’re reinforcing the implicit assumption that it could have ever been anything but stupid and trivial. The dog-eating story is trivial, but Romney putting the dog kennel on top of the car is significant. George W. Bush clearing brush is trivial, but Hillary Clinton in sunglasses is an important reminder of how cool she is. And so it goes. When you hype a particular team, you’re also hyping the whole sport.

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The Imperial Presidency
November 8, 2010

My latest Salon column was prompted, at least in part, by a post Conor Friedersdorf wrote last week, in which he asked why “the Daily Show left” seemed to have lost so much interest in protecting civil liberties now that they had their Democratic president. I question some of the premise — I have no idea who counts as part of the Daily Show left, nor do I think it’s Jon Stewart’s job to grill the president on matters of policy — but Freidersdorf’s point still struck a nerve. I can’t speak for the rest of the Daily Show left, but I am on the left, I watch The Daily Show, and for the past two years I haven’t been treating these issues with nearly the attention I think they deserve.

Anyway, I’ve made a resolution to rededicate myself to this The more people who do, the better.

The Rally
October 31, 2010

As a piece of entertainment, it wasn’t quite as funny as your average episode of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Nor do I think it could have been. Stewart and Colbert were working in an unfamiliar format for a crowd of unprecedented size under the watchful eye of a commentary class hungry to jump on anything they could paint as inflammatory. The result was a program that was silly and lighthearted but also scrupulously inoffensive. I think the presence of Sheryl Crow and John Legend, two people who have made a career out of being competent and inoffensive, says it all.

Plus there’s the fact that 99.9% of the crowd could have gotten a better view of the proceedings from their living room. I was about halfway through the crowd, and even at that distance my arms were pinned to my sides by the people around me. The stage wasn’t visible, and the nearest jumbotrons just barely. Behind me, every once in a while, I could hear a crowd roughly the size of two packed football stadiums chant, “Louder! Louder!”

That was more striking than the show itself: the size. Estimates put it at around 200,000, or roughly 2.5 times the size of Glenn Beck’s “Restore Honor” rally. I think most people who showed up were there mostly to see each other all massed in one location. It was certainly something. Unsurprisingly, the assembled masses weren’t all, or even mostly, stoned hipsters or shrieking Code Pink members. For the most part they seemed to be polite, reasonable, middle class people with generally leftish political leanings and similar taste in late-night comedy. I wouldn’t call them the silent majority, but they’re certainly the silent statistically significant demographic. When the rally disbanded, there wasn’t a single restaurant in downtown DC without a line leading out the door. I’ve never seen a crowd of comparable size anywhere in my life, and it seems possible that I never will.

But why? Was there a point? Yes, and I was a little too glib yesterday in suggesting that this was just a piece of entertainment upon which others had impressed their own views. Jon Stewart made the point in his earnest closing remarks, which turned out to be the least showman-like and most worthwhile part of the entire program. Here’s the video:

And here’s the transcript.

I’m not so sure that this will one day, as Charli Carpenter suggests, ”be considered among the greatest political speeches of our country’s history,” but I was certainly impressed. “Jon Stewart gets serious for a moment” could easily have been a grievous miscalculation, an unfunny piece of pseudo-messianic sermonizing from an ex-funny funnyman who let the high ratings get to his head. But Stewart didn’t lose his sense of humor, least of all about himself, and that saved the entire speech.

Good thing, too, because he’s absolutely right. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I’m more wholly in the tank for Jon Stewart than for virtually any pundit or political figure, but this speech, I think, vindicated my unreserved admiration. Beyond that, I’m unsure what else it did. One event like this certainly won’t restore sanity, if we ever had it in the first place. But the message was impossible to ignore. The audience who turned up to hear it was too big. Maybe, for that reason, we can look forward to just a sliver of contrition and self-examination from some of the people Stewart, directly or indirectly, called out.

Honestly, though? I sort of doubt it. Instead, I’m just going to keep my fingers crossed that their reaction is so misguided and indignant that it finally persuades a chunk of their audience that Stewart was right all along. If we can’t convert them, maybe we can hit them in the ratings.

Question for Comparative Politics Majors
October 21, 2010

M Street in Georgetown Washington DC
Image via Wikipedia

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is how peculiar DC is compared to the capitals of a lot of other developed or developing countries. See if you can tell which one of these things is not like the other:

  • Washington, DC
  • Tokyo
  • London
  • Paris
  • Moscow
  • Berlin
  • Delhi
  • Beijing
  • Jerusalem
  • Riyadh
  • Prague
  • Buenos Aires
  • Copenhagen
  • Cairo
  • Tehran


All of these cities are not just political capitals, but also major cultural and economic centers in their respective countries. Not so with DC. Granted, there are plenty of countries like that, but the more I think about it, the more it just seems damned odd to me. Surely it must have some kind of impact on the political culture as well. The question is: like what?

September 26, 2010

Washington dc
Image via Wikipedia

Made it in late last night, and now I’m dividing my time between unpacking, exploring my new neighborhood, and ducking into various cafes to check my email (our Wi Fi isn’t set up yet). Tomorrow I start work—and, by extension I suppose, adult life in the bizarre simulacrum of the real world that is our nation’s capital.

I’m not entirely sure what’s going to happen to this blog when that starts. I’d like to continue writing it, but how much time I’ll be able to allocate towards future blogging remains to be seen. One thing’s for sure: it’s likely to get even less overtly political than in recent weeks. I’m going to be thinking about, discussing, researching, and writing about politics for a large enough chunk of my waking life without giving this space over to it. Me being me, I’ll still visit the topic occasionally, but I’ve been liking the mix of cultural criticism and straight philosophy so far, and hopefully you have too.

I’m also finding the Nietzsche Blogging to be an enormous pleasure, and I’d like to do the same with other works of philosophy and political theory in the future (taking a break in between tomes to do some more recreational reading). I’d still like to visit Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, but before we get there, Peter and I have been talking about jointly tackling Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Let me know what you’d like to see in this space in the future. And if you’re at all familiar with DC, what I should be doing here as a local.

September 3, 2010

Some quick news and updates:

1.) Later this month, I’ll be moving to Washington DC to become a researcher at Media Matters For America. Obviously everything at this blog will continue to solely reflect my own views, and not those of my employer.

Incidentally, this means I need to find an apartment in DC or Northern VA in the next couple of weeks or so. So if anyone has any advice/leads, that would be much appreciated.

2.) Nietzsche blogging is not dead! I know I’ve been slacking off on the blogging part, but in the meantime I’ve been plowing my way through Part 1 of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and I’ll have some thoughts on what I’ve gotten out of it so far up pretty soon.

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