I Made You Some Content: A Look at Image Control by Patrick Nathan

I feel it’s wrong to not recognize just how long it’s been since I wrote here. To be fair, there have been some things going on. To be more fair, blogging is not exactly the trendiest of things these days. Tiktok and Instagram are where it’s at and, while I have accounts with both of them, I’m not on them all that much. I use Instagram mainly to share photos of my cats and baking attempts. Tiktok I have so I could watch videos my partner and a friend send me but I haven’t been on there in so long I’m honestly terrified and overwhelmed by how many unviewed videos are waiting for me there. Let’s just say these days that I have a tenuous relationship with the Internet and social media.

Why then return to this theater view blog-turned library exploration blog-turned unpublished writer talks about stuff? Because I want to be a writer and everyone (and by everyone, I mean people from my MFA program, my partner’s MFA program, and the authors of the Poet and Writers’ Complete Guide to Being a Writer) says you should have an online presence and maintain that online presence, not abandon your website because the pandemic got too real. (To be fair, the Poets and Writers book was published in 2020 so… maybe they’d be a little more understanding these days.) I am, in short, resurrecting this hodgepodge of scribbles like a necromancer creating a lich so that I can at least award myself the “you tried” meme while I continue navigating the world of writing as someone who got their MFA in playwriting and finds the world of publishing frankly confusing has heck.

Thanks to my partner, Avery, the writing world is a little less confusing. He’s in Hamline’s MFA program and I’ve been living vicariously through his experiences, trying to soak up all the information I foolishly forgot or ignored from my low-residency program or wasn’t included in any of our summer residencies. Thanks to a current class he’s in, I went along for a book event at Magers and Quinn Bookstore in Uptown at the beginning of October, featuring one of his professors, Will McGrath, and Patrick Nathan, author of the nonfiction book Image Control: Social Media, Fascism, and the Dismantling of Democracy.

I’m that person who went to this book event having not read the book (Avery was reading it for class, he got first dibs obviously) but I’ve read it since then and wanted to take an opportunity to highlight some of the conversation that was had at the event as well as the topics in the book. Because this book hit me hard. Not just because I learned that night at Magers and Quinn that Italy had elected a fascist prime minister. Not just because I’m continuing to navigate a very important midterm election while harboring a total ennui and frustration towards political campaigns and politicians in general. But also because I feel a whole chapter of my life as a person and a writer coming full circle.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, I took a course in the Cultural Studies department called Reading History. My professor, Ben, renamed the course Reading Hitler, and we focused on how people had tried to make meaning out of the rise and fall of the Third Reich. We talked about Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins and BOOK, we read excerpts of Hannah Arendt’s and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (the later which made me chuck my photocopy of the text across my apartment multiple times). We talked about the Producers and etc and I learned a lot about fascism and how it was making a new appearance amongst the Tea Party and others with conservative leanings, and I hoped and believed that my knowledge of recognizing and resisting fascism would remain an interesting time capsule of the politics of 2011, not actual knowledge I would need to navigate every day of my life.

I have been proven wrong since then. Knowledge of fascism and how to fight it has become a daily need. Patrick Nathan’s book concisely outlines this need while also grappling with what it’s like to be a writer in a world that claims it needs authors (citing Jennifer Egan writing in Time magazine in 2018) while treating them “little more than someone’s rigorously trained pet” (202).

This book is full of heavy gut punches. It’s difficult to pull quotes because each sentence builds on the previous and builds into the next. When Avery shared it with me before I read it, he needed to give large summaries of sections and read whole paragraphs so that I could understand the full array of ideas present. It’s a masterful piece, written by an author who is deeply troubled by what he sees in the world around him and hopes to make others more aware before it is too late.

You could say this book stands on the shoulders of other important texts discussing fascism – Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, of course (which it refers to), but it also captures the ideas of other books I’ve encountered recently but far more succinctly. I read The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff initially for writing research (only to discover it affected a million parts of my daily life, including writing on this site). That book is important but it is long (and a bit repetitive). Nathan deals with the same topics and takes it a step further – Zuboff’s insight is important but she doesn’t got so far as to tie surveillance capitalism to fascism. Nathan not only ties in surveillance capitalism but outlines how our entire economic structure profits on boxing people into marketable categories, treats images like currency, makes us suspicious of everyone and everything, and profits off of our misery and trauma.

Source: tenor.com

We use images to express ourselves, gifs to respond to conversation (as exampled above). Images are a part of our language and, because fascism is a sneaky beast that has found ways to evolve its rhetoric, its pushed its themes (that never change) into new modes of expression and new avenues. Below are couple of examples I’ve recently seen on Youtube of the ways in which fascism subtly and not so subtly shows up in our lives.

Thought Slime, the YouTube channel of Mildred/Matt (pronouns: any/all) recently posted the above video where Mildred struggles with their appearance and weight and describes how an economic system seeks to profit off of people who want to be “fit” or “thin” or look like Chris Hemsworth and fully alienates people as never being good enough. This video is a lot – extremely, extremely good and important, but a lot. Mildred gives content warnings at the beginning of the video.

As someone who has struggled with disordered eating and is still fighting to embrace my body as it is rather than how society tells me it should be, I appreciate this video more than I can say. It also hits on the darkness that lurks whenever I worry about calories or the amount I exercise, the dread I feel when New Year’s Resolutions are discussed/advertised. Bodies, particularly fat bodies, queer bodies, and/or POC bodies are criticized and shown as undesirable, or only shown as desirable if you fit a certain (marketable) category of fat/queer/person of color. Any that cannot be categorized and maximized for profits, consumption or productivity will be eradicated.

Those who are profitable or productive may find themselves sucked into a mlm that seeks to harm those lured in by hustle culture, passive income, or other forms of gig economy that are parasitic and unethical.

The channel Folding Ideas, run by Dan Olsen (pronouns: he/him) researched a mlm that he saw advertised featuring the Mikkelsen twins, who promise income by creating audio books. However, these are books not written or recorded by those profiting off of them (if any profit is actually gained). Olsen does some fantastic investigative reporting that reveals the (thinly veiled) lies of such mlm scams as well as some serious issues within the world of publishing and writing. These sort of scenarios also rely on people either desperate for income to try them or those willing to do anything to be rich and successful. They’re driven by an economy that tells us we should always be hustling, always be looking for fame or fortune, and, as exhibited by the rhetoric in the marketing of the Mikkelsens, if you don’t take this opportunity, you’ll experience the fear of missing out, of “wanting an experience you aren’t having, not to mention the little kernel of consumerist shame that you weren’t asked, that you weren’t good enough, to join” (Nathan 115).

And while we’re talking about writing and the publishing industry, I’d be remiss not to include writers practicing fascism right before our very eyes.

Shaun (pronouns: he/him) discusses the issues of JK Rowling’s work in a previous video but focuses here on the connections she has to many transphobic, racist, and flat-out fascist figures. At this point, I’m no longer afraid of retaliation from internet trolls or anyone I know for condemning Rowling’s actions and hate speech. Nothing about Shaun’s video is particularly surprising to me now (and if you are surprised or shocked, I recommend watching James Somerton’s video on being a fan and dealing with what Rowling has done). But it is alarming – especially given the number of followers she still has on Twitter and the presence and renown she’s gained as a writer. Writers have certain ethical responsibilities to their public and when they show their true colors, we should listen. Rowling has loudly announced what she really thinks by who she allies herself with. Nathan refers to Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is Not Abuse in the last third of his book. Schulman’s argument centers around abuse that is actually perpetuated in the world versus conflict that happens between individuals and is claimed to be abuse. Fascism, as Schulman and Nathan illustrate, relies on acting like those who ascribe to its politics are the victims, that they are the ones being harmed. Those who resist fascism, however, have struggled with how to deal with fascism because there is no way to use conflict resolution and communication to resolve these issues. “The error here is to call fascism a conflict,” Nathan states (156). Fascism itself is abuse, as much as the double think makes its followers believe the reverse. Furthermore, “fascism trades in death. Its currency is death… So fixed in our places, we are imagined dead before dying; our deaths ‘make sense.’ As concerns the United States of America in the twenty-first century, here is where Schulman’s distinction between conflict and abuse becomes the greatest societal urgency in human history” (217).

So then… what do we do? How can we resist and fight back against this grinding machine that wants to wear us down into synthesized consuming copies or destroy what cannot be assimilated? Nathan states in his book that, “We are too busy being productive, too involved in managing our time, to participate as citizens in our own democracy” (91). Our lives are crammed full of jobs and tasks that never end. I think about how difficult it is to go vote on election day for many people. I have the luxury of having a job that allows me to take time off if needed but, as I don’t have any childcare needs, I can go early in the morning before work (and even walk to my voting station in my neighborhood, an even greater rarity).

Our society has constructed itself so that we are too busy, too tired, or too cynical to really get involved in citizenship. This is not a criticism – because I am exactly in the same space. I continually try to get more involved with organizations, only to end up on their email list and feel like I can do little more than donate (and, with not having the largest disposable income, this is frequently not an option for me). I’ve signed up to volunteer with the same organization twice now, only to quietly drift away after I go through the volunteer training (I won’t say which organization – they do extremely important work, but it’s never ended up being the right place for me, based on their volunteer opportunities).

I’ve been challenging myself to be better about building community. Nathan and others who’ve written about resisting fascism often emphasize the importance of community – of not being isolated, of not letting other people or companies or organizations think for you and speak for you. Nathan also mentions the importance of queerness in this resistance – speaking of the queer community and the way many people within that community resists sameness and flattening. “Queerness is the ultimate protest against fascist binaries,” he states in the book, “including those established and enriched by capitalism.” The queer community faces its own struggles with being manipulated by capitalism – as Nathan mentioned during the Q&A at Magers and Quinn, there’s a certain homogeneity across gay bars after Ru Paul’s Drag Race became popular. The need for equity has been mistranslated into the want of being seen or recognized or personally branded. It isn’t wrong to want these things – all Americans are expected to want these things. But it makes pushing back against the hands that wishes to mold us into the perfect consumer all the harder.

The pandemic has added many challenges of connecting with others, ones that have only been exacerbated with the already overwhelming struggle to have sincere bonds. We’re bombarded by spam calls, junk mail, and other assortments of messaging trying to take advantage of us. It’s easy to become jaded, to feel burned out and fed up and just shut down. But if I do that, if we all do that, I worry what will become of those I have managed to keep close to me.

In Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam discusses what comes after hope, what alternatives exist to “cynical resignation on the one hand and naive optimism on the other” (1). His book envisions a new kind of optimism, one that doesn’t “rely on positive thinking as an explanatory engine for social order, nor one that insists upon the bright side at all costs; rather this is a little ray of sunshine that produces shade and light in equal measure and knows that the meaning of one always depends upon the meaning of the other” (5).. When looking for ways to use queerness to resist, I always turn back to this book. I read it in college, when I was writing my senior undergrad thesis on fandoms (in what truly felt like a different time and space). I wasn’t out yet but it let baby queer me investigate what it might mean to live differently, to accept that my ideas of success and being a femme person didn’t align with what was largely expected of me. Instead of sulking further in the toxic “I’m not like other girls” media that was everywhere circa 2012 (which I can cringe about now and recognize as yet another mode to tell people they aren’t good enough), I read this book. This book focuses on the joy of being a loser, of ignoring the rules of the game and not playing them at all and how these can be read in certain films and images.

It’s hard at first to think of oneself as failing or losing. It feels wrong and defeatist. But that’s the kind of losing that our toxic system wants us to believe in now. This is unconventional, nonbinary, queer. This accepts many ways of being, of living, of experiencing the world. This is failure only in the eyes of a world that cares so much about success.

Nathan describes this success-driven world where “our neighbors are suspicious and our co-workers are competitors” (55). In this space, there is no room to grow, to explore, to foster true connection. The only way out? Perhaps its failure. Perhaps its accepting that we’re anxiety-ridden electrified meat sacks that have been hugely traumatized by our world and don’t know how to socially interact with anyone because we’ve been quarantining for months upon months and we may never have been so good at social interaction in the first place (speaking only of myself here). Perhaps it’s seeing that we are not in conflict, but abuse, with those who willingly want to harm others. Perhaps it’s recognizing that our two party electoral system is a mess beyond words but voting still matters, dammit, especially in this midterm and no amount of bricks in a cynical wall can protect you from those who would rather hammer you down like a stubborn nail.

It sucks. It’s terrifying. I’d much rather hide under a pile of blankets and escape into my favorite book or video game instead of face this – and I do this, perhaps more often than I should. A certain amount of escapism is necessary – no live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality, after all (yeah, it’s nearly Halloween, I needed a Shirley Jackson reference). But I can’t continue as if I’m not thinking about this every day, wondering how to resist better, how to connect and support better, how to fail better. After all, fascism’s “deepest appeal is a schism from reality” (Nathan 67-68). A certain amount of painful reality is necessary right along with the escapism. We’re all looking for answers, and I don’t have any here. But perhaps rereading authors like Halberstam, or continuing to support and encourage writers like Nathan, maybe we’ll find some.

Also, support your independent bookstore and attend author events like the one with Patrick Nathan. Because a lot of these events are free and absolutely fantastic.

Works Cited

Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press: 2011. Print.

Nathan, Patrick. Image Control: Social Media, Fascism, and the Dismantling of Democracy. Counterpoint: 2021. Print (2022 paperback edition).

Published by ginmusto

Writer. Blogger. Amateur Baker.

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