On Cacophony

6/1/2018

In a recent essay for Public Seminar, dissident-journalist Adam Michnik writes about the disorienting political situation in his home country of Poland. In his diagnosis, much of the uncertainty of the era comes of having emerged from dictatorship with no particular destination in mind. The revolutions of 1989, he writes, "were revolutions without utopias. The very thought that communism could be dismantled was utopian enough." Having achieved that political aspiration, they were soon confronted with a welter of potential alternatives, each competing for attention and consideration. The resulting circumstance as he describes it feels very familiar:

Under dictatorship we dealt with censorship. Today we have cacophony, especially on the internet. There is a flood of information and an ordinary person cannot differentiate between truth and lies.

I came across Michnik's analysis by way of another essay, this one by the New Left sociologist Todd Gitlin, writing in the New York Review of Books. Gitlin draws out Michkin's notion of cacophony as a contrast to the use of anthems, like the Socialist "Internationale," to harmonize political movements around a set of themes. What the modern left lacks, he argues, is a tune, metaphorical or otherwise, that everyone in the movement can sing.

It strikes me that, more generally, the possibility of some such tune is a prerequisite for participation in politics. Before a citizen can participate effectively, they must develop some coherent sense of what the situation demands. Cacophony as a social metaphor relies on an conceptual opposition to some aural representation of coherence. One such representation is unison: we all sing the same tune. Where that fails to arise naturally from the concert of individual needs and prerogatives, a zeal for unison can lead to repressive political forms, like dictatorship and fascism, one individual or group calling the tune while everyone else sings along, even if only at the barrel of a gun. If "The Internationale" is one answer to cacophony, "Giovinezza" is another. Yet another, more genial to representative democracy, is polyphony, a multitude of voices singing their own tunes, yet without discord, as in Mozart’s defense of Figaro in Amadeus.

Those notions of order are by no means the natural state of things: they are social arrangements. Cacophony approximates something like the natural state, where there is no order to make competing needs and desires coherent, but the cacophony we’re talking about is no more natural than, say, the evocations of nature in "The Rites of Spring." It is, rather, the breakdown of the arrangements that make society at least marginally comprehensible.

In Poland, on Michkin's analysis, that disarrangement is the result of a failure, perhaps deliberate, to envision a successor to the dismantled regime. Further West, what we've seen in the meantime is the deployment of cacophony as a cultural weapon, the purpose of which is to reassert the state of uncertainty that prevails in the absence of cultural arrangements that help citizens make sense of the world. The tactic of disseminating false or inflammatory news through social media, for instance, is an attack not just on the reputation of the news media, but more directly on the individual's efforts to identify information that allows them understand to the circumstances that demand their political involvement. That may be a trick that agitator states like Russia picked up by observing the aftermath of Michkin's "velvet revolutions," but it also mirrors a group of strategies that have grown increasingly important in the contemporary information environment, and which have been studied under the general heading of obfuscation. The point is not to render useful or reliable information inaccessible, but rather to misdirect the attention of anyone who might benefit from its use.

Amid cacophony, what’s needed are corresponding strategies for discerning signal from noise. Reputability is one such strategy, which is why a major thrust of those who strive to generate cacophony is the work of discrediting reputable sources of information. Level the perceived differences between a relatively reputable source (like a major news organization) and a source with no reputation at all (like an anonymous blog) and suddenly there’s no reason for preferring one over the other. And if one source is free while the other is paywalled, then the economic incentive is bound to win out.

Arboretum emblem