The Politics of Observation

To notice, to pay attention is a political act: the decision whether or not to ignore.

The corporates or states can try to distract us and we can distract ourselves. They amount to the same thing; the act of turning our face away from something we do not want to address. Why we don’t want to pay attention depends on the object: a tax return, a failing relationship, a hand outstretched by a pleading person. We can turn away or allow someone else to distract us.

To look at something we’d rather not is a political act. It may cost us time, money, fear, engaging with part of ourselves that we would prefer to suppress out of shame or because it conflicts with the carefully constructed image of ourselves.

Documentary films are engaging, even addictive, for exactly this reason. We allow the film maker to crank our heads around, turning our face to that which we have ignored because it was new and required time and learning or because it was painful and challenged our preferred view of the world.

The film maker’s crank can work in another way: he can turn his camera away from things we should see. It is not just a matter of reality and fantasy. Over the past 200 years storytelling in the form of books and novels has focused on what we call real, reality, realism, the details of daily life. But there is a gulf between the Mass Observation movement of the 1930s or George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier and the marital infidelities of a John Updike novel or the Big Brother television show. They are all forms of realism yet they can tell us lots or little about the world.

Where are the ideas that drive us to stand up and resist or to tune our mind to eternal channels? These are more real, central to our sanity, to our ability to grapple with reality. Where, today, is the film, novel or television of ideas?

In every habitat, jungle, routine or regime we tune out a little. If we didn’t we could hardly remain individuals. But the tuning out, like the daydream, must be compatible with our functional role. A  train driver should only dream so far in his work. But outside, he is probably freer than most.  A corporate manager can read the corporate press, from the sports page and movie reviews to its presentation of world events. But if he starts to read Antony Sutton, Joseph Campbell or Carroll Quigley he will quickly reach a level of internal conflict that prevents his continued work for government or big food or the oil business.

So you abandon ideas in return for earning a crust. The first thing the billionaire does when he has guaranteed his crust is to return to ideas! George Soros promotes his view of society through regime change, Jeff Bezos and Pierre Omidyar buy news organs, Bill Gates tackles third world diseases. Ideas are what we put aside to our personal cost.

We can start by observation. Not shoplifting opinions ready made from Facebook but by using our own eyes and rediscovering our own morality.

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