Though a photo gallery of celebrities is about the last place you’d expect to find social satire, something of exactly that sort happened yesterday. Scores of unsuspecting Globe and Mail readers excitedly shared a celebrity sideshow that was accompanied by some very biting, funny captions that contrasted the Occupy Wall Street movement with the excesses of the Hollywood red carpet. “Lauren Conrad, well-known chronicler of the down and out in Orange County, wore shorts to the polo match to show her support for people who can’t afford long pants,” read a particularly witty one.
Social media sites understandably exploded with links to the photo set, but they were also often accompanied by comments like “Better get to the Globe site right now—it’s actually cool. Won’t last.” Interestingly, many believed that either the caption writer had ‘gone rogue’ or, even more conspiratorially, that the Globe and Mail site had been hacked. So widespread was the sentiment, Globe editor Mason Wright collected them here.
From one perspective, the kind of snarky, derisive tone of the captions is exactly what the web excels at, and people lapped it up. But let’s think about this for a second. In light of what may be one of the most significant continent-wide protest movements in recent memory, a national newspaper makes fun of celebrity obliviousness, and even dares to show some sympathy to some anti-establishment views, and suddenly thousands feel like they’ve just glimpsed a glitch in the matrix. What should be entirely normal is now strange. Someone should go check up on Highgate Cemetery to see if Karl Marx is actually rolling over in his grave.
So much of the reaction to the Occupy movement has been about whether or not there is a ‘clear message’ or ‘a conscious endgame’ to the protests. But the reaction to the slideshow shows why the strength of this movement is precisely its ambivalent, often ironic nature: We no longer quite know how to envision alternatives to corporate capitalism or its links to the mainstream media. Presented with a break in the connections between the two, we feel that something has gone wrong.
Perhaps it isn’t really that surprising, however. In the decades following World War II, capitalism was always counter-balanced by another way of doing things: communism. It wasn’t simply a game of ideological tit-for-tat, either; post-war Canada, Britain and the United States all had little choice but to institute socialist policies like ‘welfare’ and ‘health care’ in order to fight economic inequality. As we all know, though, when the Iron Curtain fell in 1990, capitalism ‘won,’ and it was no coincidence that the next two decades saw a shift to economic liberalization.
With alternatives now seemingly discredited by history, the only response to the failings of capitalism is more capitalism. As philosopher Slavoj Zizek pointed out in a rare moment of lucidity, the reaction to the financial crisis of 2008 was for the government to flood the market with capital, providing the illusion of both liquidity and stability. Yet with income inequality still growing, banks still raking in billions in profit and, most significantly, unemployment at record highs, one certainly gets the sense that something didn’t go quite right.
So a small but not insignificant number of people are taking to the streets to say what the yet-unnamed caption writer at Globe also expressed: something isn’t right about this. They aren’t clear what the solutions are, but they know all too well the problems plague us.
It’s strange when, in a celebrity slideshow, we catch of the glimmer of the incredulity that is probably the only logical response to the contemporary age. But it’s hard to imagine something else. There is no outside to an economy that affects all of us. In an age in which there is no alternative, there isn’t some mythical anti-capitalist purity we can escape to. To wit, the About page of the OccupyTO website, one of many, simply says “Our target is to make change in Toronto, Canada, and the Toronto Market Exchange… We are looking forward for a change”, as if there aren’t quite words for what the point of the whole thing is.
That doesn’t make the movement meaningless, though. Jacques Derrida, another hard-to-understand philosopher, liked to distinguish between the future, which was just the ordinary sense of tomorrow or next year, and l’avenir, French for ‘the thing to come’. The future is expected, easy to guess at. L’avenir is the unknown, the future we don’t know how to articulate or even understand.
In its ‘aimlessness’, the Occupy movement seems to be a way to make space for l’avenir, to open up the possibility that there may be a different way to think about things. For years, it’s seemed as if the only thing to do was to keep one’s head down and let markets do their thing. Occupy Wall Street—and yes, our lone, heroic caption writer too—suggest that accepting the norm isn’t the only option. And even if we can’t quite imagine what l’avenir looks like, we can at least gather in our unknowingness and signify that it might finally be time to think about it.
The Standard’s Bert Archer provides his take: The Non-Rogue Caption Writer and What it Says About Our Perceptions of the Globe
Navneet Alang is the Toronto Standard Tech Critic.