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.

6 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.

  2. Let us throw out a quick thought. Podcasts really are nothing but an extension of talk radio. Sure, there are more choices now, but it’s basically the same thing. Radio has long been powerful as a source of archaic-like authorization and internalized voices, from Father Charles Coughlin’s antisemitic rants to FDR’s fireside chats.

    To hear someone’s voice is powerful. Even a century ago, someone could sit next to a large transistor radio, relax in a chair, close their eyes, and become immersed in another person’s voice of authorization that would drown out all other noise. Maybe more importantly, it would subdue and silence the chattering egoic mind in relaxing the tiresome grip of self-authorization. Being able to pump a podcast directly into one’s ears with earbuds does take it to the next level, though.

    Still, I’m not sure earbuds are the most important factor. What made radio so compelling is that it could be played anywhere and at anytime. I used to sleep with Coast-to-Coast AM or NPR playing next to my bed. It was a constant background that I’d also play during the daytime and while at work. Certain voices like that of Art Bell and Diane Rehm became more familiar to me than my own voice.

    Thinking about Julian Jayne’s theory of the “General Bicameral Paradigm”, most specifically the “collective cognitive imperative”. Related to that, Jaynes used an example of how little consciousness is involved in our activities, as demonstrated by how we can drive from place to place and sometimes not recall having done so. The body-mind can do most daily activities without any need of consciousness.

    Now think about what so often occurs while driving. We’re typically listening to the radio, often talk radio. Even podcasts can be listened in cars these days. Our psychological defenses are down, as we drive ensconced in our intimate sense of personal space. We drift along as some voice guides our thoughts and our egoic boundaries loosen, our egoic consciousness shuts down. That is how we often listen to radio and podcasts in other contexts, such as when walking, working, doing housework, or while drifting off to sleep.

    It’s something usually in the background, which in a sense shifts our mind into the background. That allows it to all the more easily slip into our minds and become a part of our identity. No earbuds are required. The power of radio took hold during the Progressive Era, but it really came into its own with the culture wars and the rise of right-wing talk radio. I came of age at the same time and so it sticks out in my mind. I listened to many of the early big names during grade school in the Deep South.

    The most infamous example is the now deceased Rush Limbaugh who endearingly called his listeners ‘Dittoheads’ because they lacked the capacity to think for themselves and would repeat anything he told them. And those listeners took this epithet as a point of pride. It became a way of signaling that one belonged to a particular group identity. Liberals made funny of them for their lack of intellectual capacity and lack of independent-mindedness, but to them not thinking for themselves was their strength, not their weakness.

    Groupthink is solidarity. On the show, the word ‘ditto’ or ‘dittos’ and the label ‘dittohead’ became a general declaration of agreement not just with Limbaugh but with the entire show, it’s audience, the ideological worldview, and the group identity. But what gave this word such force is that Limbaugh himself used it. It’s like in the film cult classic Freaks when they start chanting, “We accept her! One of us! We accept her! One of us! Gooble gobble! Gooble gobble! Gooble gobble! Gooble gobble!”

    There is one aspect that is powerful about talk radio that is lacking in podcasts; or at least this is true for US talk radio. There is an established practice of taking callers where anyone can call in, talk with the host, and be heard by the audience. It’s like a collective conversation with regular calls who one becomes familiar with. That is powerful, but the lack of that feature arguably might create an even more potent effect in podcasts. The latter tend to be smaller and less polished productions. They generally aren’t made by professionals and so there is a casual quality to them, like some people sitting around having an enjoyable chat.

    “We have people on the radio/TV that we all know, you can go down the list… People who are there for one reason only, and that’s to make you mad. And the formula for making you, the listener, mad hasn’t changed a bit. Yet people keep falling for it. It amazes me. A lot of people. I have found, anytime you express an opinion, half the people that hear it are going to disagree with you, on average. If you embellish the opinion with confidence and cockiness, then you’re getting into generating hatred and so forth.”

    “Nothing ruins a good derogatory term like pride [laughs]. The word dates back to the early days of the show when callers would begin by saying, “I’m so glad to hear someone on the radio who is articulating the conservative position and believes the same thing I do.” At one point, someone let loose with this huge, flowery praise and then the next caller got on the air and said, “What that last caller said…. Ditto.” That’s how the term dittohead was born.

    “It’s unfortunate—at least it should be unfortunate to the dittohead nation—that it equates with mindlessly parroting whatever Rush says. If you ask a dittohead, “Why are you so proud that you mindlessly parrot Rush?” a lot of them will claim to disagree with him about a bunch of different issues. But when you say, “Like what?” they say, “I can’t think of anything right now, but I’m sure there are things I disagree about.” […]

    “What makes him special is that he’s the originator—the one who framed the debate for the right. He spawned this entire right-wing media empire and to a large degree it still looks to him as the voice of the movement. […]

    “Today I can listen to Rush for about 45 seconds before I have to turn him off. Part of it is that I’m ashamed that I never questioned anything he said and that it should have been obvious to me sooner. It’s uncomfortable for me to go back and realize, “Oh, I totally would have bought that.””

    “In 1988, my dad was raving about this brash young conservative named Rush Limbaugh, and after a lot of prodding, we finally listened to him together. And…I was hooked. For a dozen years thereafter, Rush would be both a political guide and a friend. Of course, he had no idea who I was. But it’s safe to say that if it weren’t for Rush, I wouldn’t be writing this today. […]

    “There’s something magical about the intimacy of radio that younger readers simply cannot possibly appreciate. The medium fosters a uniquely strong emotional connection between listener and host. I suspect this has something to do with the amount of mundane time you spend together (for decades, Rush was on for three hours a day, five days a week).”

    “But he was also something more than that, and the greater danger is in that ineffable something more.

    “Near the end of her life, I would sometimes accompany my mom to her oncology appointments in Dallas. If the appointment fell between 11a and 2p, we’d listen to Rush on the drive and I would do a sort of running commentary rebutting him under my breath.

    “To avoid fights, my mom would often turn down the volume or switch on sports talk radio. But one time, at a stop light, she shared something that stayed with me.

    ““You know, after all these years I hardly listen to what he’s saying any more,” she told me. “It’s just the sound of his voice.”

    “The words that voice carried have wrought incalculable damage on the United States and the world. But the voice itself brought comfort, levity, assurance, and familiarity to his loyal audience.

    “This aesthetic dimension — as unfathomable as it may seem to so many — was the key to Limbaugh’s success, more so than any commitment to conservative philosophical orthodoxy. It gave his listeners a sense of plausible deniability when he crossed the line, a cover for that guilty pleasure of someone transgressing a norm that doesn’t serve you.

    “It is also the easiest aspect of his legacy to overlook, which is why historians must now go deeper than the pundits and journalists will in order to better understand it.

    “To riff on historian Bethany Moreton, reading Limbaugh’s obituaries you’d be forgiven for asking: What’s the matter with Dittoheads? But what historians should be asking is: What mattered to Dittoheads?

    “I wish I could ask my mom for her thoughts on Limbaugh’s legacy, but I can’t. All I know for certain is that she would have taken great umbrage at those rejoicing in his demise — chiding our cheers and using them to bolster her sense of identification with the other conservatives who mourn Limbaugh.

    “For this reason, I suspect that Limbaugh himself wouldn’t have minded such celebrations of his death. He lived his life to provoke them. Our relief is his affirmation, a validation of his supporters’ sense of political and cultural embattlement — the epoxy, perfected by Limbaugh, that binds conservatives together more than any idea.”

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