Oliver Lee Bateman tries–and fails–to make sense of some of the “trendingest” topics on the Internet.
After the untimely death of Meow the Obese Cat, I assumed that the newstertainment cycle would enter a lull. This assumption, alas, proved to be incorrect. In short order, stories about an 800-pound bride-to-be and an attachment parent who allowed her 4-year-old son to suckle on her teat overwhelmed my Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, Foursquare, Myspace, and Friendster feeds. Although the latter case received far more attention than the former, both were inescapable.
However, this isn’t going to be a column about whether it’s appropriate to allow your attached teenager to enjoy some very-close-to-home cooking (a decision, I believe, that should be left to the states). Nor will I explore whether becoming the fattest woman in the world should constitute a desideratum for anybody (whatever floats your boat or finds your lost remote, mang). No, what I intend to discuss is how the presentation of these two stories–in silly strings of BuzzFeed photos, in countless, up-to-the-minute user-created parodies, in pointless talking-head kvetching–has served not only to trivialize the individuals involved but to render irrelevant the subject matter that is under consideration.
So how, then, are we to “consider” these things? Mary Elizabeth Williams over at Salon states the matter rather neatly in her terse takedown of the Kate Pickert’s Time cover story:
[That] image is so obviously sexualized it’s not even trying to pretend otherwise. But the real problem with the cover story is its obvious, dripping disdain. This is not just an attention-getting MILF shot. It’s a picture of a woman “driven” to an “extreme.” Sure, extended breast-feeding is unusual – and reliably controversial. It doesn’t, however, necessarily follow that a family that chooses long-term nursing is freakishly challenging anybody else to be “mom enough.” That’s what makes the whole thing gross. The entire Time cover story is framed in a way to make the viewer be simultaneously repulsed and aroused.
The same goes for Gavon Lessing and the BuzzFeed content farm crew, who mine the saga of Susanne Eman for some cheap laughs by quoting from her (admittedly somewhat loopy) description of herself on her webpage:
I love marching to my own beat and thinking outside of the box. Not that there would be a box big enough to put me in either size wise or size wise relating to my personality. Being this fat has given me a feeling of total freedom and not only self acceptance but confidence. I wish other women could find the freedom that unlocks that within themselves.
Once again, we’re left to gape in horror or, depending on one’s sexual predilections, arousal. In the course of offering users of teh internetz these two possibilities and no others, a sincere discussion of fat acceptance, feederism, gaining, and so forth was effectively foreclosed. Eman is a spokesperson for these things, I suppose, but her feelings about the matter–re-presented by places like BuzzFeed largely for the sake of mockery–are secondary to the fact that a good many people will view her as newstertainment-worthy because they think she’s ridiculous. A far more important point, put rather eloquently over at No, Seriously, What About Teh Menz? in a recent piece about the putative “death of fellatio,” will never receive a fair hearing:
Can I just point out that non-negotiated and universalizing power dynamics make for shit sex? We’re only going to have good sex when people can choose to have the sex that gets them off– whether that happens to be oral, grinding, manual, anal, PIV intercourse, BDSM, footjobs, or whatever.
But newstertainment, which exists merely for clicks and likes and and pageviews and shares, has no truck with such rarefied speculations. “Is the story spread more likely to spread virally if we put a hot MILF on the cover instead of some regular-looking woman?” “Should we use the picture of Susanne Eman eating a single donut, or should we surround her with dozens of donut boxes?” The answers are obvious and unavoidable. Thus, Meow the Obese Cat had to be hauled around from talk show to talk show like a sack of potatoes; it couldn’t have been otherwise. Without his handlers agreeing to put him on display, there wouldn’t have been a major pseudo-event to share with the millions of eager netizens at home.
In his 1962 book The Image, historian Daniel Boorstin described the pseudo-event as follows:
It is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it. It is planted primarily for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced. Therefore, its occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media. Its success is measured by how widely it is reported. Time relations are commonly fictitious or factitious. The question, “Is it real?” is less important than, “Is it newsworthy?” Pseudo-events can be repeated at will, and thus their impression can be reinforced. [They] are more sociable, more conversable, and more convenient to witness. Knowledge of pseudo-events becomes the test of being “informed,” and they begin to provide that “common discourse” which some of my old-fashioned friends hoped to find in the Great Books. Finally, pseudo-events spawn other pseudo-events in geometric progression. They dominate our consciousness simply because there are more of them, and ever more.
At the time Boorstin wrote The Image, he was concerned with how the stage-managing of political events–press conferences, televised debates, and so forth–would affect the nature and quality of public discourse. Even so, his claim that “a full explanation of the origin and rise of pseudo-events would be nothing less than a history of modern America” has only gained in explanatory value as teh internetz have made possible the instantaneous global distribution of all this bankrupt, vacuous content.
“The world,” Wittgenstein tells us, “is the totality of facts, not of things.” Maybe good ol’ Ludwig’s world, a world to which we can never go back, was so. But the world we live in is merely a world of things–800-pound brides, obese cats, breastfeeding children–about which no questions may be asked, because no answers can be given. Wittgenstein’s advice for those who hope to make sense of this welter of things is quite simple: “To say nothing except what can be said…[and] whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
But before you do that, please “like” or “share” this article. We could really use the pageviews!