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We are all actors in the running rampant of political theater

“What we’re building is a journalism for journalists and we will ultimately feed ourselves to the gullet, becoming the harbingers of our own end.”

Black holes. Found all over, these invisible gaping maws, demiurgic functionaries of our universe, have a deceptive impresence. They are space stalkers known to sometimes rupture the calm of nothingness by ripping passing stars in half and scattering their remains. Ever loyal to the cycles of life and creation, we understand new black holes as emerging from this debris. Supermassive black holes — believed by astronomers to be located in the center of every galaxy, like our Sagittarius A* — are black holes of the largest order. Monster masses of consumption, their presumed but otherwise imperceptible locations are betrayed by their voracious appetites — growing by accretion (i.e. gravitational attraction of yet more matter). The diffused material and gases sucked into their gravitational pull make up the “churning, hellish, hot-and-cold gas storms” that spiral toward an awaiting orifice. This cosmic omen was recently rediscovered by scientists to be not merely orbital, but more like a fountain: a constant stream of cold gas sinking toward ingestion. Some of that gas gets superheated by its proximity to the hole and spit back into space where it either escapes as a sort of centrifugal flare, a divergence, or “still in the thrall of the black hole’s gravity, curves back around and re-enters the falling stream.” And so it is that the supermassive black hole comes to be both a terrific destructive force and the artificer of new life and worlds. In 2019, this is our departure point.

In recent years, we as an industry have witnessed and been played by nothing less than the real-time collapse of the political scene (a slow disintegration over a much longer stretch of time than we’re willing to admit, now made more visible by its acceleration). What we are left to navigate now is the running rampant of political theater, and we’re all actors. In other words, the capital-E-“End” Luke O’Neil convincingly illustrates in his prediction of our ghastly fate is, for me, not quite here but absolutely within reach — arm’s distance, even.

Let me explain. As journalists, we’re all already writing on the ruptures we are experiencing all around us: the shattering of our national and local politics, breakdowns in discourse and extreme polarization, technological advancements versus legitimately frightening impediments, international interferences, the total overgrowth of social media, the rise of misinformation, mistrust, general discord, and what the implications are for our flailing industry, evermore poor in both cash and confidence. In his book released earlier this year, The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went to War Against Its Own Citizens, lawyer and Columbia professor Bernard E. Harcourt lays out how a counterinsurgency-theory-based government, radicalism, a paramilitarized politics (and I would argue optics) and the pacification of a people have all worked together to create the state we’re in. In short, we are living in what Jean Baudrillard called the “irruption of the obscene,” what Alexis de Tocqueville predicted could become the “Tyranny of the Majority,” what Siegfried Kracauer in a 1927 assessment of the spread of photography via the newly emerging American magazine industry referred to as an “assault” “so powerful that it threatens to destroy the potentially existing awareness of crucial traits.” “Never before,” he wrote,” has an age been so informed about itself, if being informed means having an image of objects that resembles them in a photographic sense…Never before has a period known so little about itself.”

In 2018, we’ve had the pleasure of experiencing these societal disfigurations to varying degrees and with more or less colorful words than these thinkers used. But with unprecedented mutations of the real, thanks to our voracious, internet-enabled cycles of information dissemination and consumption, there is more danger and are higher stakes for us all. It’s a sign of the times we’re in when the most simple and complete understanding, as I see it, of what we as journalists are today navigating can be found on the wall of Walt Disney World’s Splash Mountain.

On a recent day trip to the Magic Kingdom, I boarded a log and bobbed along a creek, through a “dark ride” (believe me, a double entendre that will throw any mouse-seeking child) following a trickster tale on the dangers of a hare leaving home to chase adventure. When the hare returns, having realized he should have never ventured out of his patch, his lesson has been learned and the words scrawled along the walls to welcome him home read: “It’s the truth. It’s actual. Everything is Satisfactual” — the inherent warning here being that the truth is malleable — in post-modern terms, the truth is legion, they are many and they are subjective (ie. #speakyourtruth) — and that’s dangerous. The tricksters will lure you into danger any way they can. Our collective works over the last couple of years, and many of the predictions here, say it for themselves. We’ve addressed the tricksters, grifters, swindlers, dumpster fire-starters, cheats, and the violent confusion between real and unreal as we struggle to swim against a rip current in which nothing is fact and everything is Satisfactual — what I will henceforth call the utopia of carefully fortified “social media cocoons” of like-mindedness and delusion distillation. We’re swimming against the rip current in a sea of global disruption and, amidst all that disruption, we are counting on traditional, ineffective means for staying afloat, like using Cheerios as lifesavers after a shipwreck. The current state of our every day and its potential worsening — whether you call it a circus, alternative fact, an unreality or, simply, the “end” — has formed a behemoth supermassive black hole, and we as the “Fake News” horsemen are the diffused material churning wildly in the “hellish hot-and-cold gas storms” at once wielding the power to feed or betray our fate. But our appetite, both as a people with a ravenous hunger to consume everything all the time and as newsmakers with a hunger to feed the 24/7 machine that will satisfy this demand, will grow the hole and spell our end.

In our current state, the place O’Neil calls the last remaining source of local news — neighborhood-based Facebook groups — is actually not a place that will be either for questions about what night of the week allows for street parking or whether or not rumors about “the mayor’s horse-fucking dungeon” are real, but both simultaneously, because we can no longer delineate what is legitimate and what isn’t, where truths and tales come from or where to go with them. The lines and sources and realities have been blurred, information made true to satisfy what we want to be true — “alternative facts,” “Satisfactuals.” Absurdity has set in and we are all the cow being thrown across the sky in Twister. It’s a climate that calls for Baudrillard’s fatal strategy, a self-destructive reimagining of our industry, an astronomical apoplexy that spits our particles away from the black hole, out into space, and into a different course where we might enter into a new gravitational pull and form the basis of a new world.

How we do that will be up to all of us. But before we can call for a new relationship with consumers through experimentation within technology and business strategy, using keywords like “transparency” and “truth,” we need to renegotiate these notions, our relationship to them and how we can use them to forge a new path. We have to explode our conventions, transcend the moment as journalists by taking ourselves less seriously and allowing for the exploration of cross-disciplinary possibilities that go against tradition. No one believes we’re following in the steps of our news press forefathers anyway, so why not step out and reinvent while we can? Break the apparatus for the sake of a clean slate. Become the vessel for a destruction of and solicitation for meaning according to our new context. Think local news anew with spatial journalism, be confrontational, complicate narratives, and mostly, get your hands dirty. We’ve sterilized our industry beyond functionality and we’ve lost credit because of it. I for one am working through a new photographic language in an effort to practice what I preach — a project called Masters of the Screen as a “fatal strategy” that uses image manipulation to illustrate a breaking of the information apparatus and confront viewers with a deliberate, anamorphic media Troxler Effect, forcing them to recognize the subtle violence of the screen and urging them to look beyond it.

However you do it, choose to unsettle a part of the industry, be the centrifugal divergence, for the survival of the whole. We need to stop pretending the changes aren’t happening all around us and won’t need to happen among us — that we’re not puling toward the hole, not the log headed for the 52.5-foot drop before coming around through the trickster tale again — because what we’re building is a journalism for journalists and we will ultimately feed ourselves to the gullet, becoming the harbingers of our own end. These are the stakes. And when the apocalypse does come, I actually do hope to evade the blast and “live rummaging among the ruins,” because the scavenger that I am is also the catalyst of my journalistic impulse, and those of us left to rummage will build the new world from the rubble.

Rebecca Lee Sanchez is a multi-media journalist and PhD candidate in philosophy and media at the European Graduate School.

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