There is a very real demand for transparency in politics, in the media, in cultural representations. We can’t switch on our televisions without feeling that we aren’t being given the truth. That’s not to say we’re being fed lies, but to say that distortions and exaggerations are untruths as much as lies are untruths. Body images are unrealistic; the bodies we dream of having are the bodies we see airbrushed onto the covers of our magazines. The words of politicians are betrayed by being reduced to soundbites and made into memes. Society, politics, identity, images, these things are not black and white, but there is a propensity in the media, and in the spectator, to reduce everything to exactly this. And in doing so, we lose true perspective of things.
We call for substance. We call for truth. We call for transparency. But there is a problem in that we need truth, and we recognise that we need it, yet we also desire simplicity and security. In Britain, the left have the tendency to see Theresa May as the token villain, the embodiment of Thatcherite values. They see Jeremy Corbyn as the hero of the downtrodden working class, rising up to give a voice to the everyman. The right have the tendency to see May as the voice of sensible reason, a beacon of traditional values, whilst Corbyn is a ‘Trotskyite’, an exaggerated totem of the most barren communism. As much as we want one vision or the other to be true, I fail to see how either side’s exaggerated vision could portray truth any further than the airbrushed model could portray the real body of the everyday man or woman.
I don’t believe that this is entirely the media’s fault. The media can be rightly villainized for attempting to tell us a version of the truth to sell one ideology or another. However, we also have a need for transparency in which we create our own Blindsight. Whilst the right wing villainizes Jeremy Corbyn for ‘being a communist’, the left wing have created the comedy of calling him ‘comrade’, and perpetuating a cohesive identity in calling themselves comrades. The ‘meme’ image is a language, particularly in the youth, and there are deeper values held in these memes. Pictures are shared to state our feelings of support in one direction or the other, but they never represent a complete truth. A picture of Corbyn holding a giant courgette, reading “take heart comrades, change is coming to-marrow” is very funny, but must in essence direct our attention to the wrong aspect of the political discourse, the social phenomenon. The Guardian voiced questions in asking ‘Was It The Corbyn Memes Wot Won It’? We can draw a parallel in people demanding unrealistic body images on our magazines. This would never happen. This is how we harvest our cultural blindsight.
The question can be raised as to whether the simple act of seeing distorts reality. To focus on something is to elevate its context, and both impose meaning on it, whilst draw meaning from it at the same time. To ‘see’, one must have an idea in mind in order to pick up the detail we find in reality, therefore one cannot view things without agenda. In creating a social phenomenon like the Corbyn meme, the subject must be elevated with the same agenda centered viewpoint. Culturally, there is then a functioning feedback loop in which ‘memes’ (for example) are created to emphasise a viewpoint. The viewpoint is then exaggerated to generate humour, and the meme, being ‘seen’ (where seeing is an act, remember), perpetuates and reinforces a social viewpoint. The ‘meme’ and its ‘sharing’ culture creates a social identity at rapid expansion, in response to social phenomena.
Roland Barthes proposes the idea that we create mythologies in our society in order to naturalise the things we believe, and the things which happen. Myth does not naturally occur, it occurs in the transitional movement from history to modernity of social and cultural phenomena. It is the symbology of its power. We naturalise our chosen political figure with the mythology of the Hero so that they can have the social function of the hero. In other words, humanity has a need for heroes and villains, and we mythologize to satiate that need. In imagining a hero or a villain, one naturally needs to create the counterpoint. If Theresa May is your hero then Jeremy Corbyn is your villain, if Corbyn is your hero then May is your villain.
There are many ways in which we naturalise our world to our worldview. Suppose your life is mundane. You may choose to read ‘gossip’ based magazines and media. The function of this is consciously the excitement of ‘getting the dirt’ on celebrities, as a journalist may put it. However, in demonizing the lives of celebrities, in finding interest and entertainment in their failed relationships, for example, our seemingly mundane existences become reassuring. When rich people fall from grace, our poverty is vindicated.
Henri Bergson famously said that “the eye only sees what the mind is prepared to comprehend”. We comprehend social phenomena through the binary values of good/bad, right/wrong, just/unjust, and we mythologize figures so that we are able to comprehend our situation. When we propose a solution, we choose to break through the grey-area ambiguity of life, so as to produce progress. However, we must not allow convenient acts of seeing, such as memes, to oversimplify situations. Nor should we allow them to replace discourse, or delude us to believe that things are in fact simple enough to call good or bad. To mythologize for comprehension is fine, but to mythologize instead of thinking about things in their real depth is not fine. The act of seeing should not replace the act of thinking.