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Wreath Lectures

We Are All Freemans: Pop Culture and Future Reckonings In 2014
Ryan Alexander Diduck , December 8th, 2014 13:08

Taking into account Richard Grusin's idea of premediation – the notion that the future is always already mediated through popular culture and fantasy – Ryan Alexander Diduck looks both forward and back

"As to when, in time – it may be years, but all of the varied channels of communication will work one with another…" – Edgar Cayce, 7 April 1929

"The residents had eliminated both past and future, and for all their activity, they existed in a civilised and eventless world." – JG Ballard, Running Wild, 1988.

Predicting the future isn't what it used to be. Once upon a time, we might have looked to oracles or magic 8-balls or Leonard Cohen to tell us what the future would hold. Now we're told that algorithms based on matrices of big data can predict our imminent futures - for instance, whether an incoming email is important or spam, whether it's really us trying to sign in to Facebook, what songs we're going to feel like listening to on YouTube or Spotify, and which movies and TV shows we'll want to watch next on Netflix. Google autocompletes us.

The notion that popular culture broadly presages, predicts and premeditates events is not a new one. We have long wondered why some artefacts – from 1984 to 2001 to most of The Fall's catalogue – seem so eerily accurate in foretelling the future. Art in all its forms must necessarily be a combination of memory, mimesis and projection, something like dreams that scrub over, sort through and make sense of the day's events. In our music, fashion, television and film, we see our past, present and potential future selves reflected back at us, as if conjuring in all temporal directions at once. Sometimes, the resemblance is uncanny.

Take for example the cover art for Wu-Tang Clan's A Better Tomorrow and Foo Fighters' Sonic Highways. They're almost identical images, each a digitally rendered collection of various iconic buildings huddled together, surrounded by ominous and unsettled waters. The biggest difference between them is that, unlike Foo Fighters with their US-centric cityscape, Wu-Tang throw in some cosmopolitan architecture (the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal). Both covers prominently feature the Statue of Liberty, the Hollywood sign and, most significantly, the newly completed 1 World Trade Centre. Together, the images create a stereoscopic panorama of an ideology that, since 11 September 2001, has doubled down on itself.

The two covers represent a strange synchronicity – a sorry-not-sorry collection of the centre and a simultaneous mass-erasure of the margins. In the sounder, better tomorrow, it appears, only the structures that are essential to capitalism will remain. Its symbols and myth-making apparatuses shall be preserved intact. In its unnecessity, everything else will disappear. It's also just so tasty that there are two of them – two album covers, that is – performing another twinning of the World Trade Centre.

The perfectly balanced twin towers, Jean Baudrillard believed, embodied a new form of capitalism, one which favoured networks and monopoly, a countable, quantifiable and binary world, a "product of cloning, and of a changeless genetic code". In his 2002 requiem for the World Trade Center, Baudrillard argued that there had to have been two of them, to properly signify "the end of any original reference" to dissonance and difference. The twin Wu/Foo album art indicates a gesture towards hypersimilarity, normcore in its extreme incarnation, a culture that can't think its way out of replicating the immediate present, everywhere reasserting sameness. Furthermore, they depict a fantasy for surveillance society, like the village in The Prisoner: an ideal panopticon in which everything and everyone is instantly visible.

At a lecture this autumn, American lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald made the assertion that being under constant surveillance results in boring, bland, self-similar subjects – a nothing-to-see-here culture in which nobody does anything out of the ordinary for fear of being watched and judged. Social deviance might reveal dangerous political deviance, after all. This dread of distinction has produced what Sophie Heawood, in a recent Guardian column, called the "normality perverts", Emilie Friedlander of The Fader criticised as "basic culture," and the New York Times' Vanessa Friedman termed "the new mediocre". Has our future, under a watchful and all-seeing eye, as JG Ballard once feared, become "a vast, conforming suburb of the soul"?

Not exactly. Because an alternate normative current is also underway, one that wilfully churns the margins into the centre, capitalising on the cache once reserved for avant-garde arts and artists. We live in an age when Scott Walker and Sunn O))) and Flying Lotus and Actress happily sit alongside Taylor Swift on the Guardian's end-of-year list, where Lady Gaga duets with Tony Bennett, and Surgeon opens for Lady Gaga. The more outlandish, most bizarre cultural projects are the new normal, or at least they're all in closer company. And this turn towards the normalisation of everything is no less reliant upon the electronic mass surveillance complex, albeit on its commercial side.

Governments might be watching us, but corporations are watching closer. Since the mid 1990s, the growing fascination with what postmodern theorist Paul Mann called "stupid undergrounds" - "…flocks, swarms, viruses, tribes, movements, groupuscules, cenacles, isms, and the endlessly multiplied hybridisation of variant combinations of all these…" - has revealed a critical mass of publics at the outer limits, whose esoteric tastes can be ceaselessly aggregated and reassembled and monetised with augmented precision. In 2014, another synchronous twinning indicated this trend: the release of Aphex Twin's Syro and the announcement of a third season of Twin Peaks. Both Twin Peaks and Aphex Twin might have had cult-like followings in their day, but now, new modes of corporate data-mining by companies like Spotify and Netflix, Facebook and Google, can predict a necessary and sufficient audience based on click counts. Massive communications and entertainment corporations are effectively in the same business as the NSA.

Who could have predicted this?

Well, I nominate Morgan Freeman, for one. We're only beginning to realise the extent to which bulk data collection is occurring on a global scale, but in a way, we already approved it - in part because a pair of noble characters played by Morgan Freeman over the past two decades reassured us it would be okay. If Prism ever needed a spokesperson, Freeman could have been their man.

In the 1995 film Seven, Freeman plays Somerset, a grandfatherly detective who rationalises consulting the FBI's clandestine collection of library records to catch a serial killer. And in 2008's The Dark Knight, Freeman's character Lucius Fox – an inventor working for Batman's alter ego Bruce Wayne – reluctantly assumes control of an experimental sonar surveillance technology that only he has the moral authority to use wisely. In both instances, the monstrosity of criminality provides grounds for unethical reconnaissance, gambling on transgression itself to create the conditions for its retroactive legitimation. The ends will surely justify the means.

In The Dark Knight, Batman, an avatar for wealth and industry, uses Fox's surveillance system to battle the Joker, an avatar for destruction and chaos. And a line of dialogue from Seven has Somerset telling his partner Detective Mills, "Our killer seems to have more purpose." So, attacks that threaten social stability and freedom itself warrant unprecedented responses that erode the very freedoms they ostensibly protect – freedoms that we willingly surrender in the name of prediction.

Media scholar Richard Grusin has a name for this: premediation. "Premediation," Grusin writes, "seeks to make sure that the future has already happened by capturing the moment when the future emerges into the present, that is, the moment when the future has already become the past, by extending our media networks into the future." More than remediation, which describes how newer media absorb and refashion older media, premediation anticipates the future of media practices and technologies, and how they will likely look very much like the ones we're used to. More than remeditation, which seeks with greater or lesser accuracy to imagine possible futures, premediation not only predicts cataclysmic events, it also preempts the ways in which those events will be mediated, massaging us with half-fictions into future submission. These characters, brought to life by Morgan Freeman, didn't just presage our current state of surveillance - they premediated the ways in which it would be sold through the media, and precisely how we'd buy in.

The reason why there has been no all-out rejection of electronic mass surveillance in the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations – why both the British court and US senate recently rejected reforms – must be because, on a deeper level, the majority of people are alright with being surveilled. Perhaps it's because we believe that the ones doing the surveilling are actually acting in our best interests, or because we're getting something out of the deal, or because we're too normal to be of any concern. Any which way, we are all Freemans now; like Somerset, we are justifying pervasive snooping on ourselves while, like Fox, reluctantly believing there is no viable alternative.

Still, how good is surveillance at preventing catastrophe? It seems that heightened surveillance is what's legislated after violent and traumatic events take place, not before. In Canada in 2014, sweeping new cybersecurity laws were tabled without debate after a soldier was killed at the National War Memorial in Ottawa in October, just as they were in the UK after the London bombings, and in the US after 9/11. Meanwhile, the newsreader's newest favourite line is, "in the coming days…" actively conceiving of every possible outcome to tragedy, each more terrifying than the last.

But premediation doesn't prevent the police from, say, killing unarmed black men any more than it does another terrorist attack. It simply gets us used to the idea of these events' increasing frequency, and offers a possible glimpse of how we'll be forced to swallow the news. As Grusin argues, "the shock of 9/11 produced the desire or determination never to experience anything that has not already been premediated." No future for you? Maybe.

The question at hand is, what does this year's crop of pop culture reveal about our possible futures? Well, we're so shocked by current circumstances that we have invented entirely artificial mediascapes to retreat into. We've got Matthew McConaughey looking for new planets to colonise like they're interstellar condo developments, and Jennifer Lawrence leading a post-apocalyptic steampunk healthgoth revolution. All ten of the year's top-grossing films centre on superheroes, mutant beasts or Lego. Nicki Minaj and director Jeffrey Osborn made a Nazi-inspired video and passed it off as a history lesson for millennials. Even our most outspoken humanitarian musicians – U2 and Thom Yorke – cosied up with Apple and BitTorrent, requiring their listeners to remain complicit in the corporate-owned and corporate-surveilled internet.

Only Aphex Twin's deep web stunt seemed remotely critical of the extent to which data is collected online, but all we seemed to glean was that we all follow David Lynch on Twitter: it's the Aphex-Twin-Peaks crowd. Even everyone's favourite outsider, FKA Twigs, wound up doing an advert for Google Glass, and a subsequent interview with Rolling Stone about how she's not, in fact, a pop star. Meanwhile, confirmed pop star Taylor Swift made millions while appearing to take a stand for independent artists, taught us to shake absolutely everything off, flattened New York City – by rendering it utterly banal – in a way no terrorists ever could, and penned 'Blank Space', the most heartfelt inadvertent ode to disaster capitalism in recent memory. The Wu-Tang and Foo Fighters' album art, in their consolidated absence of humanity and heterogeneity, warn that the desert of the real is soon to become an island too.

If our works of art and culture do premeditate and indeed premediate the future, then we desperately need to create more narratives that paint a picture of a world we'll all be able to live in. That world must include a multitude of voices and a legitimate counterculture beyond aggregation and measurement. More importantly, we require media and their networks to resound those voices. Let us restore a degree of outsider-ness to outsiders, and reinstate a sense of event-ness to events. Let's demand that we imagine infinite plurality rather than binarism and repetition, and appreciate our asymmetrical nature. We must be the difference that makes a difference. This will require devising futures which have yet to be written, and that cannot be autocompleted.