Cognitive Dissonance

I spent most of the past week in New York City, attending to family matters. (The basic purpose of the trip was so that my parents could spend some time with their grandchildren).

Whenever we were in our hotel room, and the kids were awake, we had the TV on, turned to CNN or MSNBC, watching images of the current catastrophe. I was struck, even more forcefully than usual, by the cognitive dissonance between what was seen, and what was said. Images of horror, covered by the most anodyne commentary conceivable. I remember, during the 1999 Seattle anti-WTO protests, when visuals of cops running amok were accompanied by one local anchorperson whining that her Christmas shopping had been disrupted by all the fuss and hubbub downtown. But this week’s coverage was far worse. Even as the reporters and commentators mentioned, for once, the usually taboo subjects of race and class, their overall tone and demeanor was working to muffle and diminish the impact of what we were seeing, to suggest that human benevolence was going to triumph over merely temporary difficulties. Soledad O’Brien, ‘on the scene’ yet standing firmly on dry land, didn’t break into a sweat, nor lose an ounce of her perkiness, as she reported that help was on the way. Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper reported the flooding, the starvation, the lack of medical care, in the same tone that they would use to describe chatting pleasantly with Donald Rumsfeld at a cocktail party. It wasn’t so much what they said, as how they said it.

Leftist philosophers, theorists, and cultural critics have usually been worried about the seductive power of images: the way that they disarm criticism by making What Is seem self-evident, by reifying particular moments and isolating them from their contexts, by preventing any analysis that would seek to go beneath surface appearances. And indeed, it’s true that images shorn of context have often been used for the most hideous propagandistic purposes. But here, in televisual feed coming from New Orleans this past week, we seem to have the reverse situation: images that ‘speak’ starkly of the ugly facts of race and class in America today, that show how the Powers That Be of government and business have relegated large numbers of human beings to the status of non-persons, that demonstrate eloquently that, however ‘natural’ the disaster, the differential experience of the victims is entirely man-made; while a flood (if I can use that metaphor) of speech and discourse strives to decontextualize and normalize these people’s suffering, and to ‘explain’ how, even in the face of sadness and tragedy, life goes on and the USA continues to be the greatest nation on earth.

8 Responses to “Cognitive Dissonance”

  1. janus says:

    I had the same experience myself. I finally saw TV reporting on Katrina this last weekend (no TV at home, saw it when I was in a hotel)and was blown away by the difference between the impression of the reporting I got online, vs. the bit I saw on TV, which was a montage of a torn city accompanied by some treacly “coming home” song. The funny thing is, Lenin’s tomb, one of my favorite blogs, has a post making exactly the opposite point:

    I hope he’s right.

  2. Chuck says:

    Believe it or not, Shep Smith and Geraldo Rivera’s comments on FoxNews have been among the most powerful in disrupting this televisaul attempt to normalize the crisis in Louisiana. I’ve been disturbed by this will to “normalize,” to ignore the onging problems created by Katrina, or more precisely by the negligence and incompetence of the federal governemnet in the face of Katrina (and the race and class divisions the hurricane exposed).

    I’d agree that the images offer an important counternarrative to this decontextualization we’re seeing on the news.

  3. Steven Shaviro says:

    Yes, I’ve now seen the Kanye West, Geraldo Rivera, and Celine Dion clips; and in these cases the speakers do break through the anodyne babble, just as Lenin’s Tomb says. But of course they all get posed as hyperemotional, and are immediately countered by other “voices of reason.” Kanye’s intervention was probably the most effective: he spoke a bit haltingly, but that only emphasized how he wasn’t reading the teleprompter any more. They obviously didn’t quite know what to do, so they just broke away from him after he denounced Bush. Geraldo made a spectacle of himself, while Sean Hannity, as the voice of “reason,” kept on trying to talk him down. Celine Dion’s outburst was the weirdest: Larry King keeps on asking the pre-scripted questions, as if she weren’t crying and almost breaking down. But finally, when he asks her to sing a song, the script comes back into effect, and Celine, like the trouper she is, suddenly switches gears and does the requisite performance. Anybody who reacts appropriately to the images being shown is branded as hyperemotional, which is a way of trying to discredit them. Which may or may not work; the whole point is that the coverage has been so bizarrely split, and it’s on the terrain of affect that the contradictions will be played out in the minds of us the viewers.

  4. John C. Turner says:

    I figure Kanye West is the easiest to discredit. He’s the angry black man playing the race card. If I’m right, he’ll be reflexively dismissed, and through him all questions of race in the tragedy. If a black rapper cries racism, then it must not be true. The racism that leaks through the raw footage and the racism that will be dismissed through Kanye West (or any black hurricane survivor begging for federal assistance just like it was a welfare check) might play into the sort of contradiction you’re talking about here. This is assuming I’m not overestimating the extent of American racism, but I don’t think I am.

  5. David Denny says:

    I have to disagree with Chuck about his props for Celine and Kanye. Their inclusion in the mix is perfectly consistent with they way in which CNN, MSNBC, et al provide an ideological support for the fantasy called globalization, a.k.a. global capital. In other words, how could our government, and I stress government, react so slowly, or not forsee the very real socio-economic problems of such a major evacuation or anticipate the horror of Katrina’s aftermath? Because such an evaluation or response simply does not enter into their world view! The blindspot concealed by the ideology of global capital is precisely the refugee, the disenfranchised. These people are not accounted for within the fantasy — and if they are, they are the ones who swim to our continent, wash our dishes, and then open up their own business. They are the ones who make their destiny through hard work and toil, by asserting their will, their freedom. This is why it is wrong for liberals to be cynical of Bush. He shakes the hands of the dispossessed with the same earnestness that Geraldo smacks hysterical about the heroism of survival (betraying the fact for him that survival is still but an idea, and strange little fantasy), or Celine as she rails the federal government as though it were some superhero that really does protect the vulnerable from evil.

    The Neo-liberal/conservative doxa needs to show you Kanye, Celine, and Geraldo so as to reaffirm that their dissension and disagreement within the walls of the Empire. But they also need, as Shaviro says, to reintegrate thses very minor disturbances into the normalizing show of reason, which has nothing to do with reason and everything to do with an ideology that supports the “necessity” of the global (capital) village.

    One more thing: i’d say this constant use of the word refugee has some weird psychoanalytic meaning, perhaps what has been called surplus-jouissance. That is, enjoyment can be found precisely in that space wherein enjoyment is most non-sensical. The meaningless of human suffering enables the non-suffering human a degree of enjoyment because they have something to feel concern or passion about. But it is a false regard for the suffering! If a flood tore asunder orange county, and whities were on the move, I wonder if they would be called refugees.

    Today, refugees represent a politcal term for those without not only home but of country, raped of political representation and due process. Refugees represent a menacing anomaly to the great modern ideals of the nation-state, which recongize the sancity of all individuals. New Orleans, overnight, became Haiti or Somalia — not because suffering is suffering — but because what all of these places have in common are large numbers of people who are forgettable. No ruling paradigm, or ideology, likes to recognize its other, its anomaly.

  6. cij says:

    Just a quick query/pause for reflection: Can any conversation with Donald Rumsfield ever be termed as “pleasant”?

  7. Steven Shaviro says:

    Not by me, but I suspect Wolf Blitzer might well find & describe it so.

  8. Kirby Olson says:


    The newscasters did have to try to remain neutral. I didn’t know what you meant. It would have been interesting to see them cry or gasp, or throw a chair, or throw confetti snowbursts to express distress, but I think they would then lose their job, wouldn’t they? It’s an irony of the kind of objectivity that we require, perhaps, even though of course everyone and everything is largely subjective.

    There was a guy on CNN who was shooting in lots of irony and he seemed very stressed — was his name Brian Gumbel? I don’t know — he looks like a cheerful chipmunk generally but this time he looked like an unhappy and stressed out chipmunk trying to regain his composure.

    The media has to mediate. None of them are auteurs. It would be amazing to have a totally artistic newscaster who could have his or her own vision and say precisely what they think (to the extent that it is possible to think while something on so monumental a scale is taking place). We have a few loose cannons of that variety who say what they “think,” I guess — but the vision isn’t artistic. Could the news be artistic and passionate or would that be a contradiction in terms?

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