In a world where information reaches us through Twitter notifications, Snapchat stories, and a perpetual breaking news cycle, a familiar pattern has developed. On a regular day, we’re presented with an urgent news report — some important event happened somewhere in America, we’re told — and suddenly, public discourse becomes fixated on a specific topic. As consumers of media, we typically fall in line with the dichotomy that the story presents us: are we either pro- or anti-, allies or enemies, sympathetic or skeptical? But this framework is inherently rigid; it limits us in our interpretation and critique of the media. To break free of this fixedness, I propose we take a page from the Marxist textbook.
This is a country that broke in scandal when Bernie Sanders self-identified as a democratic socialist (a qualifier which, evidently, had no effect on the perceived obscenity of the word), so it’s hard to imagine an application of Marxist ideology being well-received. Contemporary voices from the right, or more precisely the not-left, have implicated neo-Marxist thought in the outrage and victimhood culture of our times. There’s sense in this reproach; it’s no secret that ideas like white privilege and identity politics may have contributed to the cultural alienation that led to Trump’s victory. But these critiques tend to emphasize Marx as a conflict theorist, a figure who identifies and antagonizes power dynamics. What I’m suggesting is that we consider the utility of a specific theoretical operation which Marx introduced, involving the distinction between form and content.
Originally conceived as aesthetic categories, the term content refers to the idea which is meant to be expressed — the source — while form is the means by which this idea reaches us — the presentation. In the Marxist critique of capitalism, it is said that the value of labor, the content, takes on the form of commodity, which then enters the social realm and is exchanged on the market. As opposed to classical methods of economic analysis, which focused on identifying and quantifying the diverse kinds of commodity-forms which exist, the Marxist approach subverts the simple content vs form paradigm and asks: why did the value of labor become embodied in the commodity-form anyway? In other words, the theoretical operation which distinguishes Marxism from other economic theories is to investigate the ‘secret’ behind the identity of the form itself, not just how it originated from a certain content. It is to ask the question: why this form in particular?
This theoretical operation was noted by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek as having a homology with the Freudian practice of dream interpretation. I want to argue that it applies to our media culture as well. Let’s take the April arrests of two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks as an example. What would a ‘classical’ narrative of this event look like? The form, that is, the news report we see and hear about the event, has emanated from a definite content: widespread, systemic racism. The debate to be had, then, fixates on the following question: was this event a symptom of racism in America? But to frame the debate in this way misses a deeper point. A more intriguing question, to follow the formula introduced in the last paragraph, would be: why is it that questions of racial injustice, perceived discrimination, and so on, have taken this form in particular? Why was this news story sufficient to provoke a national debate on the issue of race?
This perspective encourages us to scrutinize the conditions which led to the event’s capitulation into national headlines in the first place. And here’s the crucial detail that cannot go unnoticed: it began as a video on Twitter, which quickly racked up more than 250,000 likes and has been viewed more than 11 million times. The event’s publicity on social media ignited its coverage by major news outlets, not the other way around. This isn’t problematic in and of itself: journalists can’t be everywhere, so it’s important that newsworthy events can be documented by iPhone-brandishing pedestrians. But because outlets such as Twitter are information-scarce and appeal to emotions rather than rational contemplation, the ‘social media to national headlines’ pipeline should be the object of intense skepticism. Since Marx investigated the products of labor as commodity-forms, let’s call such manifestations of the news Twitter-forms.
Here’s an example that might shed light on the problems inherent with Twitter-forms. Let’s suppose that a week prior to the event in question, a study came out concluding that statistically, an equal proportion of white and black males are being kicked out of Starbucks for trespassing. Despite this finding, I suspect the video would have still garnered the popularity it did, if anything, for being a perceived counterexample to the study: a powerful and public anecdote which contradicted its findings. But an anecdote is just that — a singular occurrence — and in this case, national headlines would have once again recapitulated the issue on the basis of an emotional reaction. Here inlies the absurd, tautological nature of Twitter-forms: if the answer to the question ‘is this a racial incident’ could be settled by an empirical study, but the relevant empirical study would not have prevented the video from garnering views and going viral (and thus, would not have prevented the question from being posed to us in the first place), is it a fair question at all?
All this is to demonstrate that the Twitter-form of news makes emotion the foundation for national discourse, not facts. As long as this is true, we will continue to be inundated by stories and invited to participate in ‘public debates’ which may very well be obsolete, and whose relevance relies solely on the emotional reaction of the Twittersphere. Another recent event which calls into question the validity of Twitter-forms is the recent debate over cultural appropriation, sparked by an online accusation that a high school girl wearing a traditional Chinese dress was being culturally insensitive. We should rightfully question whether the 170,000 likes which supported this accusation truly comprise a starting-off point for national debate, especially when we consider that many of them could have been inspired not by a rational position against cultural appropriation per se, but identity politics, a propensity for outrage, or dare I say, resentment against a pretty girl who seemed to be having a wonderful time. Once again, analysis of the Twitter-form of news should make us skeptical that such an ‘event’ is even the manifestation of a public debate in the first place.
This isn’t an exhaustive commentary by any means. We are the first generation that has to deal with such a complicated issue as the relationship between news and social media. In scarcely a decade, what was once the exclusive domain of narcissistic high schoolers with too much to say has become a platform for journalists, celebrities, and world leaders. Nonetheless, Twitter remains a market whose primary currency is outrage and emotion. Maybe it’s time for a little Marxist critique.