The Handshake of Water
“like the metal might fair leap from the plinth.”
- From “End of the Trail”, Kenzie Allen Poetry Magazine, September 2022 Volume 220, Number 5
“Too much is never enough.” - MTV slogan, 1980’s
…allaying the effects of what author Peter Nelson refers to as the “digital neural amplification” of paranoid ideation derived from the “digital world”, as we return to a haptic, intentionally somatic phenomenology of experience, freeing ourselves from a seemingly all-encompassing and pervasive culture of social imprisonment designed to attract and program us in order to supplicate our deepest fears and needs to it and imprison ourselves within it…
Over there. A conspiracy theory is launched by a far-right group on social media. There. “Stop the Steal” runs rampant through the American landscape. There. “Governmental authorities use algorithms to make all sorts of life-altering determinations (while) ‘citizens become even more visible to their governments, but not the other way around’ in the words of a 2019 United Nations report.” (Eubanks, Automating Inequality). There. Opposition Researchers (like those detailed in the book Why We Did It) find patterns of behavior and discreet activity to target adversaries. There. We see our friends’ wonderful pictures on Instagram. There. Or envy the influencer’s number of followers on Tik-Tok. There. Or mull over family and friends and strangers’ ever-idyllic daily meanderings on Facebook. There. Where? Show me. Some psychologists define jealousy as the feeling that we can’t make a safe home in light of another’s apparent ability to do so. We ask ourselves: Can I not make a bountiful life like all of these people on Facebook? One further from the sturm und drang of existence that I feel, but they seem to avoid? Yes! (Click) Hey, FB friends, look at me now…! All animals have a mental tool that watches for and alarms them of danger. We all have a built-in system – the limbic system – which, in part, is meant to warn us of and protect us from harm. From threat. From predators. From death. As we discussed in early blogs, Terror Management Theorists remind us that humans watch most acutely for the death of their self. As a result, when we are reminded of our body’s ultimate and impending mortality and, by extension, the erasure of our self from the social world of meaning and value, well, we tend to do crazy, irrational, unproductive, and even harmful things. In fact, in a recent New York Times article, researchers found that the danger of imminent gun violence, in addition to a lack of Social Networks and Trust Networks (University of Pennsylvania, 2015), could best be predicted by a life crisis. By a threat of not existing. Of being disposable. Of having no hope, help, purpose, or meaning on a social planet, in a meaning-filled world rife with symbols of value and valuation. Given our small stature in the universe, this situation begets Shame and Panic. Shame and Panic beget blame. Blame, Shame, and Panic beget Revenge. Revenge begets erasure. And so, the sense of our own impending or threatened erasure is expressed symbolically in the erasure of someone else or something else.
As humans with a constructed idea of self – that is, a self-story – we build on that self-story as we place ourselves in the world through connective stories. As we know, the world we live in includes perceived and real threats. In an effort to assure ourselves that we stand on a solid vantage point with feelings of control and safety from these seen/unseen/real/perceived threats, we create stories. Reasoning. Suspicion. Gossip. Explanation. Conspiracy Theories. Of course, the Heroic. We make stories as an instinctive part of culture practice. These practices, as reported, confer meaning and infer value. As such, they denote a sense of self-substantiation and knowing. A knowing of place. Of right and wrong. Of this way or that way. Even when built on supposition. That’s what humans do, in part, to stay psychologically whole and alive (as discussed in earlier blogs). Otherwise, a constant and abiding terror of our smallness and fragility would overwhelm us. So, we make a story – to protect us from ourselves and, supposedly, the world around us.
If we see a perceived threat – even just something outside of our normal, everyday activity – even (especially) without all the facts, our brains start making up possible narrative possibilities – stories - about what might be happening and what we’re doing to stay safe. Some call this managing risk. Some call this discursive thinking. Prejudice is like this. Gossip is like this. Character assassination, smear campaigns, and socio-political scapegoating are all like this. Oppression, in fact, I would attest, is the will to action to remove someone’s story from them – from their life-body. So, on social media – that bastion of symbolic valuation, meaning, and affirmation - when we see a scenario, we make up a story about it. And when the story we make up doesn’t reflect what’s actually happening (how can it?), we then commit what psychologists call a “fundamental attribution error”. How can’t we? Free the Body addresses this question.
Initially exemplified by the twenty-four hour news cycle, and tremendously compounded by addictive on-line access and its attending cultural behavior and social expectations, our much more regional brains have long become overwhelmed to the point of either caring to the point of experiencing a heightened state of alert through constant media badgering with resulting anxiety provocations - or not caring at all. Our analog brains live in digital overload. Our interaction with – and, arguably, our dependence upon – digital technology is pervasive. The November Build Peace conference in Chemnitz, Germany (where Free the Body is presenting), not anecdotally, puts forth that “our online and offline lives are inseparable from one another.” Given the conflation of ubiquitous on-line and off-line media culture, how might our peace ever be achieved and maintained when basic limbic stimulus is being hurled at us constantly - infecting us with a relentless invasiveness of proposed threats to our lives? Comedian Jon Stewart once notably pointed out that the only way for the 24-hour news cycle to survive was to hinge its programming on violence and sexuality. Clearly, this triggers the evolutionary limbic system in two ways: one, to be on the look out for impending death; and two, to be on the lookout for impending life-making (procreative) opportunities. Media ratings, viewership – all programming – all noticeability - literally hinge on life and death. However, originating from the basic cosmological question of “Why am I here?”, our social awareness is existentially threatened due to the digital “body snatching” described above to the point of asking the question, “Am I, in fact, here at all?”
We find ourselves in the strange paradox of being story creators, while at the same time, ignorant (to some degree) of our complete, real story – unless of course, we publish our daily moves to the world, enabling us to reflexively admonish and affirm our behavior as a culturally acceptable worthwhile exemplar. What is the number one media format? The Selfie. A constructed story reminder that we exist and everything is ok. We can see ourselves – our body, at least. Its ironic that a tool that enables us to see ourselves is most often used in a probably futile effort to invisibilize our self. Even in a culture of individualism. I remember a woman in her forties on the street in NYC in 2015 taking a selfie, then turning to me and saying, “Whoever invented the selfie was lonely.”
So, our media exposure puts us into a constant fight/flight/freeze mode as warnings of threat and disappearance barrage us. We employ the terror management techniques, in part, through the urge to chase and/or create constant symbolic reminders of power and existence - if only for just now. Caught frozen in the moment. What the writer Dr. Mark Fischer calls hauntology. A cultural praxis that discourages and even disables the advancement into the new.
In his wonderful 2021 piece, author Peter Nelson writes, “the provision of social media to our human herd…has had the effect of directly over-activating the alert system, thereby over-driving the innate paranoid ‘tilt’ of our perception and story-making.” In other words, while we’ve always had a bit of – maybe even a healthy – “paranoid tilt” to keep our proverbial nose in the air for danger, our current media climate has exacerbated this tilt to a 180-degree bend of constipated paranoid ideation.” Nelson notes, “…the speed and volume of feedback in these digital systems can generate a positive (ie additive) feedback loop thereby exacerbating paranoid ideation.” He continues, “When applications like Facebook become the main source of mutual social grooming and gossip, the positive feedback loop established in those contexts tends to drive most participants into dependency on social media.” In other words, to keep our sense of self safe, we become dependent on the source of the very threat which drives us to create our “self-story.” As a result, we and our authentic self-story become invisibilized by digital media, particularly social media.
Nelson writes, “The perception of danger and the generation of a story of threat…only becomes pathological when the perceived threat is sufficiently amplified by additional emotionally charged input leading to a regressive positive feedback loop…social media is capable of causing this kind of paranoid looping…” I would attest that any media is capable and guilty of this looping. Doesn’t advertising attempt to create a critical mass audience pathologically driven to their product? Doesn’t the Fox “news” network actively promote a cultural cohesion of followers by authoring and reasserting a narrative? Certainly, while “hidden threats are brought out into the open” through social communication, resulting in a “reduction in anxiety and peak in excitation” (Nelson), I posit that the general media climate – and not just social media – bases its success on increasing anxiety, attendant excitations, and pathological fan base.
In this way, our bodies are bound by digital culture. Quite literally, the limbic system of “The approximately seventy percent of the normal population…evolved to be slightly over-reactive to alarm stimuli is now being driven to a more intense reactivity and paranoid ‘self-story’-making. The entire alerting, attending and reaction system is amplified so that it is now showing characteristics of perception and behavior that previously belonged primarily to the more extreme thirty percent of reactors.” (Nelson) Our bodies are captured by external stimulus, through our limbic system, freezing us or driving us away from our own authentic story toward a deeper reliance on a constructed self. Our digital world “in turn, drives the process into continuous looping for more input required to clarify and resolve the increasing cognitive dissonance caused by the variety, frequency, and ambiguity of input.” Further, the information inciting this behavior cannot be either confirmed nor denied, “verified or discounted.” No agreement can be established. No bi-lateral understanding can be reached. Only an addiction. Yes, addiction. As Gabor Maté defines it, “A behavior that produces a short term relief with long term, negative consequences, and which one cannot stop engaging in.” Sounds like the above to me.
Thankfully, as Nelson reports, “…fundamental to the continuation of this course is the absence of direct emotional knowing that we usually experience in face-to-face interactions. (There is) a lack of honest emotional and non-verbal signaling to apply some negative feedback to the loop…” This is where the Free the Body project comes in.
Far from the out-of-time, unilateral communication norms of texting, social media, news outlets, etc., Free the Body places its messaging focus, as well as its feedback means, into a dialogic state. As women’s rights, abortion rights, and human rights are addressed through the poignant tool of abolition feminism, the process and address, itself, is intentionally manifest through manifold interactions. Storytelling – set within the installation soundscape – is not born of social media, but of personal, anonymous testimony. They are not relegated to “Who I want you to think I am now and in the future”, but rest on the experiential knowledge of included empirical realities of “What I have seen…What I have been…How I remain free over time, in spite of everything” Ironically, the absence of full name returns the individual to liberate their most complete personal story as part of the public story. That these stories arrive from across cultural communities is essential, as notions of freedom of the body – which may, tragically, include interpretations of freezing or binding or panicking of one’s movement by another – must be, themselves, free to conflate and conjoin with one another in the phenomenology of the conversation proferred within the installation and performance.
Stories, dance, visual art, and sound are produced and invite across the region’s cultural communities and their progenitors. The composition point is not to include every symbol expression that’s ever existed – that’s impossible – but to return to accessibility, in a collective effort of personal wills, real conversation, communication, the honoring of true historicities. Indeed, the Greek root word for “history” is “historia” which means “a finding out”. Not a decree. Not a politicking. Not a competition. And certainly not enslavement of any kind. But the will and act to discover. To not know, do that one can see anew.
Through the phenomenology of direct, sensory experience of making and attending to the Free the Body performance project, makers and attendees, alike, are forced to unify what Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman calls “fast and slow thinking”. That is, thought processes that produce an instantaneous gut feeling with thought processes that rely on empirical methodology to generate “pragmatically useful knowledge”. In other words, embodied thoughtfulness. Mindfulness. Art making must, by nature and design, marry the instinct to the rational and empirical worlds. Yes, one or more of these elements may be predominant. However, from conception to construction to presentation, they’re all utilized.
The Free the Body project, as its namesake illustrates, removes the delusions committed through the perversions of personal salesmanship in slavish service to ubiquitous outlets of duplicitous, owner-oriented media attempting to (and succeeding, in part) to parent the masses, as the conglomerates sell symbol-valuation and the drive to valuation-symbols to the growing numbers of those afraid of disappearing into unmeaning or social danger. Free the Body, instead, returns us to a dialogic, interrelational, direct experience of lived truth. Not agreement about a principle, necessarily, as all are invited and testimonial edges meet to move the conversation forward, but certainly an agreement about what exists and is an integrated truth – where reality, intention, direction, and even threats and blessings are clear and not in error. Without a regressive feedback loop to found. And if any falsities and/or backslidings are, in fact, seen in the project. Well, they’re not invisible anymore, either. References
Kahneman, Daniel (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
Nelson, P. (2021). Digital Neural-Amplification: Paranoia and Digital Media. Academia Letters, Article 3682. https://doi.org/10.20935/AL3682.
O, Shea, Lizzie. (2022) Dystopia for Realists. The Baffler Foundation. Number 64. July 2022.
Written by Peter DiGennaro, Sound Artist/Human Rights Educator