Monday, August 29, 2011

Is Jon Stewart Conscious?

[For a related post see: The Daily Grind]

As all private media has only the bottom line of profit as its goal, it has become a prerequisite of modern discourse that one be entertaining if one seeks to be heard for very long. As a consequence of this our greatest social critics are almost inevitably entertainers, mostly comedians. Such a state of affairs is accepted with joy by many on the left, as humor is an excellent way of quelling dissent. However, there are consequences not readily recognized of turning the institution of the public intellectual into, what is in reality, a branch of the entertainment or, "culture", industry.

I will begin, for those not familiar, with a simplified description of the Marxist concept of false consciousness. It is essentially a state of acceptance of the status quo as a byproduct of growing up within a capitalist society. From birth, one is indoctrinated with the ideology that capitalism is all that has ever been, or at least, that no viable alternatives are possible. It is for this reason that the working poor so often vote against their own best interests. It is in the interests of those at the top to keep those at the bottom from considering the possibility of change. In this way, capital forestalls revolution by keeping the would-be revolutionaries in a state of disillusionment. In the case of wage slavery, where one must live week to week without the ability to save, the worker also falls into a form of dependency where one becomes resigned to continue as one always has rather than risk the uncertain outcomes of change.

Where in this does the comedian as public intellectual stand? All major media outlets are the possession of capital. What capital legitimates the media legitimates, and the public, conditioned to accept the authority of media, confirms capital in its prejudices. This is not to imply some hidden agenda agreed upon in advance by capital, it is merely the way in which capital unintentionally undermines its own critics by commodifying their popularity, making them in effect advocates of the status quo despite themselves.[1] And so, although there are many examples of criticism and satire in the media, their audience is either too small or too unsophisticated for collective action. The very existence of such voices, however, serve to quell dissent as demonstrations that free speech is alive and well, yet the dominant voice always heard is the voice of capital, and capital speaks for the status quo.

Again capital, seeing any phenomenon in society that draws conspicuous attention to its self, by its nature attempts to commodify that phenomena.  It is here that I now turn to the example of Jon Stewart to illustrate my point.  In entertainment, the entertainer becomes the commodity.  You are not just selling your skills or talents in the ordinary sense considered under labor power.  It thus becomes even more important to create an "image".  Stewart illustrates for us this point by changing his name.  Born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz, it is often explained that his name change was due to a poor relationship with his father.  This is understandable but perhaps too simple.  It would seem odd then that he simply would not have changed it to Laskin, his mother's maiden name.  The problem is that this is still a Jewish name, and for someone wishing to enter the entertainment industry any such association can become a perceived handicap.

Stewart has argued that he is merely a comedian, but his influence belies this attempted dismissal of responsibility. As a product he has become alienated from himself, and his professional need to be entertaining and his, no doubt, honest desire to tell hard truths have created a conflict of interest that does a disservice to both aims.  Is it fair to say this is a form of false consciousness, that Stewart, having grown up within the system is unable to recognize his own part in it?  If nothing else it perhaps reveals the near impossibility of obtaining influence outside the power structure of capital.