This video project was originally inspired by an explosion of social media activism that occurred throughout most of the summer concerning Michael Brown’s murder and the subsequent protests in Ferguson, and the ALS ice bucket challenge. To many, this appeared as a strange dichotomy. One where the lumpen proletariate– Adorno’s naive unwashed masses– were excitedly dumping buckets of freezing water over their heads in participation with some sort of ritualistic mass spectacle, when others were simultaneously witnessing the precipitation and backlash of state power after a case of profound racial violence where an unarmed black teenager was sacrificially murdered by yet another white police officer.
The critique is that people participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge were engaged in something trivial and counterproductive when there was real political action and violence happening elsewhere– which is based on the incorrect presupposition that the Ice Bucket Challenge itself was/is not already a response to a similar kind of institutional violence. Even more so, many people who criticized the Ice Bucket Challenge made an unfortunate misappropriation of Marxism and Critical Theory in order to support their arguments, thinking that this would clarify their distributions of critique and praise regarding ALS activism and Ferguson. Ultimately however, this is a veil covering what really was and is a cynical reaction to the entire affair– given that according to Critical Theory’s larger conceptualization of ideology, the actions of both political critique and consciousness raising in social media are largely the same when it comes to material practice– in that neither are material practice. And this is notwithstanding the fact that in the case of the Ice Bucket Challenge, many people were not just consciousness raising but were actually raising capital to fund scientific research which had previously been gutted by the Obama administration. Granted, this may be counterproductive to ALS activism in the long run (given that whole Althusserian notion about Ideological State Apparatuses) but that’s for a different post.
Regardless, these are some of the questions that I wanted to think through in this video essay.
Here is the full passage of the sub-chapter from Marx that Zizek is citing:
“A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point that those properties are the product of human labour. It is as clear as noon-day, that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than “table-turning” ever was.”
Part of the cynical critique of the Ice Bucket Challenge is grounded in the idea that “it’s not really doing anything.” The snag with this critique is in how it’s identical to the forwarding of the discourse of analyses of Ferguson as inherently “doing something” at the level or representations in conversations about both events as they are compared to each other. The difficulty pivots on the ability inherent in ideology to appear as its opposite, and this is a property of both discourses as they exist as topics created around images of both events.
The Ice Bucket Challenge is largely presented through video content, as are the protests in Ferguson. This does not mean however that one image possesses more “reality” (equated in this discourse as political content) than the other at first blush. What I am trying to point out through the video is that something much more complicated is happening at the level of the organization of the perceptual content in both events. In other words, what is happening in Ferguson is something that is changing, is in a state of flux, and the same thing can be said of what is happening in ALS activism. Both are represented through a visual field, and both have been changed by being pushed into this visual field in a way that has correspondingly also changed the way people read them as events. This is arguably part of the reasoning behind why the discourses of Ferguson rapidly shifted away from being conversations about the murder of a young black man towards conversations about the militarization of the police. It’s also why Jon Stewart can rightly make fun of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to an extent, because there is something absurd about it. Nevertheless, Stewart’s criticism is also a radically oversimplified rendition of the politics behind the event as he compares it to something else– Ferguson– which is monumentally different in its structure, especially when we look at how images of both events have been picked up and co-opted by visual media.
The video itself was shot in one take with a screen capture program. The point was not to simulate something but to limit the amount of editing that went into the structure of the video essay. There are several typos on the captions, there are problems with the audio, and my mouse cursor is constantly flitting about the screen. My intent with this was not to make an appeal to some sort of documentary realism in the film, but to instead just show my own hand in scraping together a video that did not use too many editing techniques in order to construct an argument. The whole structure of the video content is visible there in the essay, which was my point in building it this way, even though it is visually noisy at times.
If anyone is interested in watching the videos I used in their original forms, here are the links:
Jon Stewart’s “Ferguson Challenge”
Celebrity Ice Bucket Challenge
Millenial Diagnosed With ALS
Zizek in Examined Life
Zizek on 9/11 and Kosovo