Thursday 14 October 2010

Excavating for a Meaning so Providential

Plato’s allegory of the cave was elaborated in an ancient context that was witness to the demise of the city-state as an operational unit for maintaining social harmony and order. Hence, if civilization were to endure beyond Athens, it would have to submit to a higher condition, much different to that of a privileged pantheon of civic gods that justified the power of a bunch of short-sighted politicians. And it was precisely Plato’s ideas about an abstract but ideal deity that was taken up by Christianity in order to justify the imposition of an ethical claim to human brotherhood under one male god as a universal creed that in a sense resolved Plato’s dilemma single-handedly.

The Christian high-god would take the place of our philosopher’s ideal, and by this stroke of genius, humankind (in the west) was now regimented under the hands of an all-encompassing father figure that curtailed our existential defeatisms. But both insiders and outsiders who had developed their own all-inclusive claims subsequently questioned Christianity’s universal affirmations. The way out of this quagmire was to invent the nation, to substitute a grand idea for another, and to sideline any previous representatives with claims to a transcendent totality. But the new leaders left intact the idea of aspiration for grandeur and of a history with meaning. So our modern claims to universality had to settle for the coalescence of big tribes under one same roof, each of them headed by a political head, who in a sense was still going to be intent on perennially emulating Plato’s ideal of the Good.

But the Nation-States claims to universality were hindered because of their inability to convey its unifying message of shared values to every citizen in each corner of its territory, principles that tend to function as the cementing units of every patriotic ensemble. And the media at this stage had not yet sided with the state, and was still the conduit of public opinion for a people that were waking up to the freedoms that were being assuaged by the novel political organization in charge.

So with this backdrop in mind we could analyze Chile’s most recent soap-opera drama of the trapped miners. The actors in this play are basically four:

First, we have the victims, which provide tangible suffering as personal narrative and social lubricant for further collective scenarios and patriotic discourses within Chile.

Second, we have the State, which epitomized by the Nation’s father, acts as the main character, and the mastermind who plans the miners release and who ultimately relieves them from their captivity and suffering.

Third, we have the media, who overall increases the tempo, drama, and narrative, and who in the end benefits from the exposure and income that is generated from it all.

Finally, the global and mediatized spectator, who not only shares in with real human calamity, but who in the end signs and seals a deal which was previously orchestrated by the State with clear utilitarian goals in mind.

So while the world entertains itself and reflects on the greatness of concerted human efforts by tuning in to a televised rescue, other forces are being played out. The State’s genius in this act was to turn around an original accident that made bureaucrats lament that the 700-meter pit may be part of their geography. On the other hand, it is very curios to know that CODELCO, the national copper extracting industrial state monopoly, and the biggest source of foreign revenue, was being fought over between the interests of both public and private sectors. This televised show of force by the state will possibly render anathema any intent of further privatizing mining.

But by discounting economic interests for the time being, this article intends to focus on identity formation in an age of pseudo-operational Nation-states. What I want to highlight is the power of the new media and the hegemonic position that it has established in collusion with the state. What we are witnessing is the articulation by the state of patriotic discourses by using a relatively unknown phenomenon (up until yesterday) that has now achieved centre stage. This means that regardless of other countless mining accidents that have ended in tragedy, this one has been harnessed in order to achieve multiple goals besides the most obvious humanistic ones. So a country that is celebrating a bicentenary (just like many other Latin American countries), takes these miners as heroes of the anniversary, by materializing a reality that serves as flesh for the bones for a symbolic event of magnitude. In similar cases of recurrent national celebration, every other leader would dream of having heroes like our miner actors in order to give their social happenings some tangible and referential political meaning, besides the already familiar but very abstract memories of historical events that have made possible whichever is designed to be re-celebrated and re-enacted for social cohesion purposes.

Any government would wish to have a similar opportunity for nation building like this - in order to re-establish themselves at the top - by rebranding a still coherent, cohesive and functioning idea of collectivity. And there is nothing wrong with this. But the case shows us how the media has moved (at a large extent) from being solely critical of the state and a delimiter of public spaces, to a player that creates and re-shapes public opinion, in order to fit this space with its powerful and monetary goals and those of the state, whatever they may be.

It is clear that what the state openly strives for is national unity behind an event that would have gone unnoticed if the media had not trusted and placed its money-hungry instincts over it. And it is in this relation with the media that the state most profits from, because the former does not only influence civil society in order to better position political candidates (and in some cases to make them outright winners) in popular elections. No, the state won with this hegemonic relationship with the media because the latter operated as the showcase for the plight of the forgotten and the dispossessed, something which is needed to heed popular calls for inclusiveness.

The media presented a very profitable human narrative that not only revealed the human side of things. It was also a symbolic way of telling the average Chilean on the fringes (which an education dictated from the centre had left out) that they too could form part of that patriotic family, and that he or she will be rescued from any situation of despair if only they would care to reunite under the protection that the umbrella of the state and its compassionate patriarch provides. So personal lives are enhanced to make us feel part of it all. We find out about someone’s existence that in most cases would be ignored if met on the street. Detail is tailored with the goal of making us feel more closely identified with their suffering, by stirring our emotions, thus we fix our attention on whatever a small quadrangular receptacle presents us.

“This has been a miracle” stated Chile’s president, whilst he took part in the whole orchestrated event. I wonder if the man ever pondered on legal claims to statehood, where a sane separation between church and state is necessary. Ultimately my answer was provided from above - God is still helpful for nation building - regardless of its inability of directly controlling the political public space. Nevertheless, the television saga offered a unique opportunity to catch a glimpse and observe that those on top still stand on religions’ shoulders for support.

In the end our main characters, the miners, which symbolically could represent the people inside Plato’s cave, emerge from it as targets of a system that utilizes them for diverse but covert purposes. The rope, that seems to be the link between real civilized life and the helpless but still hopeful group of individuals, becomes a metaphoric string that converts the miners into acting puppets of an ever more ambitious play.

Plato’s cavemen could potentially come out to light from deep inside the darkness of their confinement as free men because if they did, they would be able to understand what it means to come face to face with the ideal entity that created the life that they had played out as individuals underneath. Our Chilean miners surfaced as heroes, but of our interest-ridden and multi-purpose theatrical civilization.