Battle of Voices of Authorization in the World and in Ourselves

New Feelings: Podcast Passivity
by Suzannah Showler

My concern is that on some level, I’m prone to mistake any voice that pours so convincingly into my brain for my own. And maybe it’s not even a mistake, per se, so much as a calculated strategy on the part of my ego to maintain its primacy, targeting and claiming any foreign object that would stray so far into the inner-sanctum of my consciousness. Whether the medium is insidious, my mind a greedy assimilation machine, or both, it seems that at least some of the time, podcasts don’t just drown out my inner-monologue — they actually overwrite it. When I listen to a podcast, I think some part of me believes I’m only hearing myself think.

Twentieth-century critics worried about this, too. Writing sometime around the late 1930s, Theodore Adorno theorized that a solitary listener under the influence of radio is vulnerable to persuasion by an anonymous authority. He writes: “The deeper this [radio] voice is involved within his own privacy, the more it appears to pour out of the cells of his more intimate life; the more he gets the impression that his own cupboard, his own photography, his own bedroom speaks to him in a personal way, devoid of the intermediary stage of the printed words; the more perfectly he is ready to accept wholesale whatever he hears. It is just this privacy which fosters the authority of the radio voice and helps to hide it by making it no longer appear to come from outside.”

I’ll admit that I have occasionally been gripped by false memories as a result of podcasts — been briefly sure that I’d seen a TV show I’d never watched, or convinced that it was a friend, not a professional producer, who told me some great anecdote. But on the whole, my concern is less that I am being brainwashed and more that I’m indulging in something deeply avoidant: filling my head with ideas without actually having to do the messy, repetitive, boring, or anxious work of making meaning for myself. It’s like downloading a prefabbed stream of consciousness and then insisting it’s DIY. The effect is twofold: a podcast distracts me from the tedium of being alone with myself, while also convincingly building a rich, highly-produced version of my inner life. Of course that’s addictive — it’s one of the most effective answers to loneliness and self-importance I can imagine.

Being Your Selves: Identity R&D on alt Twitter
by Aaron Z. Lewis

Digital masks are making the static and immortal soul of the Renaissance seem increasingly out of touch. In an environment of info overload, it’s easy to lose track of where “my” ideas come from. My brain is filled with free-floating thoughts that are totally untethered from the humans who came up with them. I speak and think in memes — a language that’s more like the anonymous manuscript culture of medieval times than the individualist Renaissance era. Everything is a remix, including our identities. We wear our brains outside of our skulls and our nerves outside our skin. We walk around with other people’s voices in our heads. The self is in the network rather than a node.

The ability to play multiple characters online means that the project of crafting your identity now extends far beyond your physical body. In his later years, McLuhan predicted that this newfound ability would lead to a society-wide identity crisis:

The instant nature of electric-information movement is decentralizing — rather than enlarging — the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences. Particularly in countries where literate values are deeply institutionalized, this is a highly traumatic process, since the clash of old segmented visual culture and the new integral electronic culture creates a crisis of identity, a vacuum of the self, which generates tremendous violence — violence that is simply an identity quest, private or corporate, social or commercial.

As I survey the cultural landscape of 2020, it seems that McLuhan’s predictions have unfortunately come true. More than ever before, people are exposed to a daily onslaught of world views and belief systems that threaten their identities. Social media has become the battlefield for a modern-day Hobbesian war of all-against-all. And this conflict has leaked into the allegedly “offline” world.

3 thoughts on “Battle of Voices of Authorization in the World and in Ourselves

  1. I have poor hearing, so I don’t listen to stuff. I have good eyes, so I read a lot, scanning until a nugget may appear. I feel protected from the maddening buzz of the world.

    • That would definitely give you a different experience.

      I was raised in a more text-based society than exists now. But already in my childhood, cable and video games were coming to dominate. My family also had a computer in the late 1980s and my dad, as a professor, had the equivalent of the internet shortly thereafter. Then I got a portable CD player in high school during the early 1990s. Still, I read a lot of physical books when I was younger and I still do.

      There is something about audio, though. I used to listen to talk radio. Sometimes that is what I’d do for hours back in the worst period of my depression in my 20s. I was also working janitorial at night. While alone cleaning, I’d have Coast to Coast AM playing. Or else I had NPR running as a calm, soothing set of voices in the background. It was around that time I also started listening to spoken word on CDs, mostly William S. Burroughs.

      Certain voices do begin to sink into one’s psyche. I never listened to audio so constantly, though, that I mistook them for my own voice. But for those with a constant barrage of podcasts operating as a field of voices that never goes silent, I could see how it could take over your mind after a while. It’s hard for me to imagine that as a good thing. I don’t believe the mind is singular and there is nothing wrong with having many voices you hear in your head or, for that matter, in the world.

      On the other side, it’s good to learn to appreciate silence or else the non-human sounds of nature. If one can’t be comfortable alone with oneself or remaining in silence, that seems like potential trouble. It would make one anxious whenever there aren’t voices and that would likely cause one to be easily manipulated. It could be the return of the bicameral mind, but this time maybe in a way that could be used by authoritarians. Rather than the communal identity in which the bicameral mind was embedded, the podcast listener is alone with the voices that speak directly into the head.

      Still, I’m all for experimentation. The second piece I linked was about how people are using modern technology and social media to take on new personas and express other aspects of themselves. That sounds more healthy because then it is a voice coming from you. Injecting the voices of others into your mind, however, seems like a risky practice. At a societal level, it could have profound consequences.

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