I just knew there was a reason I hated mimes. The panhandling, the bad jokes, the frightening make-up, the….silence – they all swirled together into a perfect storm of annoyingness. The great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche shared my sentiment. He viewed mimesis as a strategy of the weak against the strong – a threat to life, passion, and power. As a budding übermensch, I took Nietzsche’s prescribed defense against mimesis – to rely on one’s creative instinct – to heart. And my instinct always told me that those quiet bastards were responsible for the sorry state of our doomed 21st century.
So it came as no surprise to me to find that one of humanity’s greatest thinkers, Plato, had a similar attitude towards the ancient “art” of mime. The Greek philosopher denounced overly imitative representation, which he deemed “mechanical accuracy,” and called instead for a “rightness of mimesis” in the arts. In class last Wednesday, another great thinker, Professor James Der Derian, again invoked…I won’t say “repeated”…the dangers of mimesis. He observed that, less than two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union (and I note as I write this that the media is currently buzzing with news of Boris Yelstin’s death) it seems that we are again fighting a global war against a monolithic ideological enemy who wants to defeat us and destroy our way of life. Let’s call it the “mimetic quandary” – somehow, we continuously find ourselves haunted by the ghosts (or the zombies) of political, economic, and social history. Despite our best efforts to learn history, we still seem doomed to repeat it.
In fact, I’ll do Professor Der Derian one better, and charge that the Cold War itself was just another example of political mimesis – an ideological aping of World War II. In that war we really were engaged in a global conflict against monolithic ideological enemy who wanted to defeat us and destroy our way of life – barely comparable to the hardly monolithic and often over-estimated enemy we faced in the Cold War. The fact that televised news and mass media took off in the United States around this period gels nicely with Professor Der Derian’s assertion in class that the “mimetic quandary” is fed and perhaps even created by the media. He went on to cite “poesis” – creative expression – as the alternative and the solution to the “mimetic quandary,” and proposed that new technologies may soon put this ability into the hands of the masses. Ten minutes later, after class, he assigned me a thematic essay in which I had to find a “media solution” to the “mimetic quandary.” Always eager for a chance to beat up on mimes, I got started right after Spring Weekend (hangovers help me study).
The first question, naturally, is: “How does the media feed the mimetic quandary?” In fact, I think someone asked this in class but I wasn’t really paying attention and it’s not in my notes. Anyway, the way I see it, the news media, by its very nature, is pledged to mimesis. The holy grail of “objectivity” pushes journalists to merely report the “facts as they happened” – to give the most exact, neutral, thorough account of what happened in the world. The New York Times proudly labels its paper, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” as though the news is reproduced exactly on its pages, without any intermediary journalists or filters. To an American journalist schooled in the necessity of objectivity and the evils of media bias, the ideal form of reportage would allow the audience to personally experience the events themselves. Some kind of advanced, alien-technology from the 30th century, which tapped into users’ brains and directly stimulated the correct nerve endings in order to recreate the news. Mimesis in its purest form.
The second way in which the news media tends towards mimesis is that it is their job to explain very complex, confusing, and often foreign concepts and events to the American people. The media’s natural reaction – in fact, most peoples’ reaction to such a difficult task – is to simplify and to explain in terms that the audience will understand. The American people understood World War II, so, in the news media, “Nazis” became “Communists.” Almost 60 years later, “Communists” have become “terrorists” or, in an even more striking form of mimesis, “Islamofascists.” The news is also over-simplified by a media eager to attract an audience and afraid of alienating or confusing their customers. The complexities of the Sino-Soviet relationship and the differences between Maosim and Stalinism were deemed too confusing and complicated for the “average American,” so instead there was a vast and monolithic Communist menace. Though the civil war in Iraq has forced many Americans to learn the hard way about the realities of the Islamic world, news coverage of the events, especially in the first few years after 9/11, remained very much in the “us versus them” mentality. Saddam Hussein was a secular, nationalist, oppressive leader whom the United States supported throughout the 1980s. Al-Qaeda was a revolutionary, fundamentalist, internationalist terrorist group (many of whose members the United States also supported throughout the 1980s). In reality, the two were bitter enemies, but were quickly lumped together in the media’s desire to simplify the complexities of international affairs following 9/11 (people who want to kill us vs. people who don’t want to kill us…yet).
The dangers of the “mimetic quandary” are twofold. On one hand, mimesis blinds the American people to the realities of the international situation. One can almost hear the droning chant of “It’s just like the Cold War…It’s just like the Cold War…It’s just like the Cold War” reverberate from the White House. Neoconservatives have only just begun to recognize their mistake in believing that the “liberation” of the Arab world would work just like the end of Communism in Eastern Europe. At the same time as it distorts one’s perspective, mimesis warps reality to fit itself. This seems to contradict the first danger of mimesis, and it does, but, unfortunately, rather than cancel out its harm, it merely complicates it. By viewing the “War against Terror” as another “Cold War,” Americans manage to recreate all the bad bits of the Cold War – the fear of internal subversives, the global and monolithic threat, and the terror of imminent destruction. Edward Said notes that, if one believes that all lions are fierce, then it is more likely that the ways in which one would handle a lion will actually increase its fierceness (Said 94). In the same way, the more new media mimesis makes the American people feel as though we are in an “us vs. them” situation, the more the world really will become “us vs. them.” The more we tell ourselves that terrorists hate our freedom and want to exterminate us, just like the Communists, and just like the Nazis, the more we engender that reality.
The topics for this week’s class, 9/11 and the “Al-Jazeera Effect,” come into play as failed media solutions to the mimetic quandary – to again invoke the ancient Greeks, both 9/11 and the “Al-Jazeera Effect” are “pharmakons,” potential cures for the mimetic quandary that ultimately became poisons which only added to the problem. The terrorist attacks on September 11th, in their horror, devastation, and cruelty, were, to again invoke Professor Der Derian, events too big for our theories. In fact, they may also have been too big for our news media. For a brief period, the attacks seemed so heinous, so enormous, and so terrifying that the news media could no longer resort to mimesis in order to explain them – just as in academics, September 11th shattered the American people’s notions of history, of ideology, of global culture, and of international affairs. Yet soon enough, 9/11 was churned through the new media’s mimetic machine, re-emerging as the return of Pearl Harbor, the return of a global conflict, and, even to Osama bin Laden, as the return of the pain of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon to the complicit United States. Bin Laden invoked this mimetic view of the attacks in his October 2004 recorded message to the American people, “While I was looking at those destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me to punish the unjust one in a similar manner by destroying towers in the United States so that it would feel some of what we felt and to be deterred from killing our children and women.” Sadly, on top of all its physical horror, 9/11 served to only worsen the mimetic crisis by sparking another wave of “us vs. them/Nazis/Communists/terrorists” mimesis.
With the actors on both sides of the conflict blinded and driven by the mimetic quandary, even in the wake of the potentially discourse-shattering events of September 11th, Al-Jazeera seemed to offer hope for an end to mimesis. Before 9/11, the U.S. government routinely praised the Arabic television network, headquartered in Doha, Qatar, as an uncensored, independent, progressive voice in the Arab world. To those frustrated by the mimetic quandary, Al-Jazeera promised not to be restricted by the traditional perceptual frames of the American media, because its principle audience, its newscasters, and its journalists were Arab. Thus, they would not continuously draw on World War II and Cold War paradigms to present contemporary issues, but, rather, would offer an “Arab” perspective that could free Americans from the binds of mimesis. Ah, if only it were so easy. Instead, Al-Jazeera became a pharmakon – a cure but also a poison. First of all, Americans don’t read or watch Al-Jazeera. It’s not completely the nation’s fault, either, as, following 9/11, the Bush administration and American media outlets such as FoxNews repeatedly smeared the Arab network and casted it as the “terrorist” news station. No cable networks are currently willing to carry the Al-Jazeera channel for dread of appearing sympathetic towards “the enemy” and, by this point, I fear that many Americans are probably too afraid or too hateful to watch it. What happened, sadly, is that Al-Jazeera itself was also sucked into the American news media mimetic machine, becoming just another character in the 21st century’s new Cold War. Though the network has an excellent English language webpage which I encourage everyone to read, this has had little impact on political discourse in the American media. Additionally, Al-Jazeera is also trapped by the mimeticism inherent in the journalistic pursuit of objectivity – their motto translates as “The Opinion and the Other Opinion.” Their mimesis may draw on different sources than does the American mimetic quandary. However, just looking at the history of 20th century relations between the West and the Arab world (conquests, imperialism, exploitation, terrorism), Al-Jazeera’s mimesis does not portend to be any more pleasant an experience than our own.
Now, after all this pretentious, academic posturing, is there a media solution to the mimetic quandary? I believe there is. And it comes, surprisingly, waving an American flag, proudly “supporting our troops,” and riding a bucking Bill O’Reilly. That’s right – FoxNews. The FoxNews Channel’s producers seem to grasp the concepts of post-modernism better than any other media outlet. There must be a few Brown grads working there, hiding deep within the steaming bowels of the FoxNews Manhattan headquarters. No other news media outlet has managed to harness post-modern concepts like the impossibility of objectivity (Fox insists that it’s “Fair and Balanced,” but it does so with a wink and a smile), the influence of perceptual frameworks, the power of media effects, and the phenomenon of virtual immersion like FoxNews does – it’s just that Fox uses those concepts to advance the hegemonic, Bush administration agenda. Call it the “FoxNews Effect” – watching Fox, you don’t see the news, you experience the news, with hip headlines, flashy presentations, cinematic sensibilities, self-conscious framing, and attacks on media competitors. And FoxNews journalism is only half the story. If you’ve been watching FoxNews just for the reportage, you’ve been missing the whole point. Pundit shows like “The O’Reilly Factor,” “The Big Story with John Gibson,” “Your World with Neil Cavuto,” “Hannity’s America,” and “Special Report with Brit Hume” (all conservatives...sorry, O’Reilly, “traditionalists,” which I also encourage everyone to read) are what make Fox work. Although the phenomenon is also present in the standard FoxNews reportage, it is on these shows that the news isn’t just reported, it’s produced. Here the “objective facts” take on flesh – they become something dynamic and living and potentially revolutionary (were they not so pro-administration). Like a good student of continental thought, FoxNews understands that journalists can never simply neutrally recount “the facts as they happened.” Instead, Fox sees how the media creates, and often even impacts, the news. Rather than remain dedicated to objectivity and mimeticism, FoxNews pursues poesis and embraces the ways in which media effects and virtualism allow journalists to create. The sad part of it all is that they use it merely to ape the Bush administration’s worldview and to promote its policy – a perspective that relies heavily on the continuation of the mimetic quandary.
So, in the words of Che, I hope for two, three, or many FoxNewses to flourish as the media solution to the mimetic quandary. Naturally, these “post-FoxNewses” should apply the techniques of the FoxNews channel but not its politics – they should embrace journalistic poesis as a counter-hegemonic tool. Naturally, there should be more than one of them, as the fractionalized post-modern condition on which they are based demands a multitude of perspectives from which viewers can glean to form their own perspectives. They shouldn’t all be liberal, either, as any kind of ideological hegemony is dangerous and a diversity of news-media-experiences, even that offered by FoxNews, is essential to maintaining an informed, educated, and alert populace. With many FoxNewses producing journalistic poesis, there may just be a chance to escape the mimetic quandary and finally see the world in a new way. Accepting the notion of journalistic poesis and praising FoxNews may be difficult and painful, but I believe it is the best media solution to the mimetic quandary. Unless you want to live in a world full of mimes.