In a somewhat questionable marketing endeavour, the Eastern Cape Region has been sign posted, ‘Frontier Country’ and indeed this is what it is. Historically it is the site of the 9 Frontier Wars and much brutal conflict and living here presently can still seem the edge of nowhere by comparison to many major South African metropols. With Grahamstown at the heart of it, it is also a cosmopolitan space not without vestiges of past pain but - like many colonial outposts in a post-colonial time - it is no longer a satellite to an absent motherland, a mere microcosm of elsewhere, but also a world unto itself.

A potential space of intellectual, debate rather than military conflict – geographically isolated from metropolitan trends – a melting pot of many places, a crucible. In more recent history, this frontier space has been a site of culture, of experiment. Home to an annual arts festival, how is it that Grahamstown with a population of just under 140 000 can command so much creative imagination in novels, plays, poetry and art? Frontier, Border, at the end of the world but not about to fall off – merely at a vantage point to observe a view to come.
- Rat Western

DISCHARGE 2012             COLOUR COLLOQUIUM 2010             SYNTHETIC DIRT 2011

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Paranoia of Ron T Beck

by Chad Rossouw
 Ron T Beck is corrupt, international and invisible. Ron is the doer, the producer, the enabler. Moving from dodgy mining deals in Russia, to dealing arms in Iran, Beck is multi-talented, nonchalant, and enormously immoral. He embodies the filthy underbelly and maneuvering that enable gross corporate profits. He is also an artwork, an invention of artist Charles Maggs, and probably your friend on Facebook. Beck only exists through images and abrupt statements on social networks and blogs, making him seem autonomous and self-generating.

This paper will seek to contextualise the production of Ron T Beck. I will characterize elements of his existence as paranoid and conspiratorial, and link these elements to commodity fetishism. I will look at how this fetishism operates in the media of the Internet.

I have recently been reading around classic SciFi author Philip K Dick, so you’ll have to excuse the obscure start to this argument. 

In a commentary on his short story Colony, the plot of which revolves around lethal aliens able to perfectly mimic everyday objects, Philip K Dick relates paranoia to a disparity in the interpretation of objects. He says:
"The ultimate in paranoia is not when everyone is against you but when everything is against you. Instead of 'My boss is plotting against me,' it would be 'My boss's phone is plotting against me.' Objects sometimes seem to possess a will of their own anyhow, to the normal mind; they don't do what they're supposed to do, they get in the way, they show an unnatural resistance to change."

In Capital, Karl Marx argues that capitalism is reliant on the exchange of commodities. His description of how objects mystify themselves into commodities and how their exchange value becomes fetishized takes on a distinctly similar tone to Dick:

"The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, with relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will."

Obviously this juxtaposition of Marx and Dick is analogous, or even metaphorical, but there remains an interesting relationship between paranoia and the interpretation of objects. While trying to define paranoia, not as a clinical illness but as an aspect of quotidian life, and for the sake of simplicity focusing only on symptomatic manifestations, two ideas emerge for me. The first is a continuous interpretation of the world as related to the self, ie “This shit always happens to me.”  The second idea is that this hermeneutical approach is hyper-interpretive of the world and of others. It is not only, “Everyone is a shit “ but also, “Every thing is shitty to me. “

If we consider the Marxist view that society is founded on the production of commodity, and furthermore that the fetishization of commodities is a direct correlate, the fetishistic commodity is the basis of human relations, both social and material. The commodity then becomes the object of our interpretations. This interpretation tends to the paranoiac because everything, even our social relationships, has meaning not related to its use-value.  Interpretations then have the potential to spin out of control, multiply and mystify. Ultimately, the world is in constant need of interpretation.

In the age of mass media, the object, which forms the basis of commodity, has become sublimated. In his famous The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord presents the idea of the spectacle as the totalizing mediated form of the commodity: In the first thesis he says, “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.” Debord posits that the spectacle isn’t separate from the world, a mere product of the mass-media and the dissemination of images. It has become solidified, a vision of the world that has become objectified, in opposition to physical objects. For him, ”The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life. Not only is the relation to the commodity visible but it is all one sees: the world one sees is its world.”

The collapsing boundary line between the commodity and the world is reflected in the shifts from industrial capital systems to financial capital systems, which really are just spectacular economics. With technologies like social networking and augmented reality becoming further embedded, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the real world from paranoid interpretations.

At this point I would like to give an idea of how the artwork Ron T Beck manifests itself.

Ron and his appropriation of images

Ron T Beck exists on the Internet, but only through the circumstantial evidence of Facebook status updates and pictures posted to a blog. (He has manifested occasionally in off-line video works by Charles Maggs, such as “I am Not Ron Beck” (2004) and “The Conversation”(2009))

I was amused to find on Charles Maggs’ website, a fictional disease which he calls Cropenberger’s Syndrome. Cropenberger’s is defined by “disjoint between the conscious and the subconscious self in respect of idealising, fetishising or imitating an external individual (such as a celebrity a stranger or an person not familiar or know to the individual).” It almost precisely describes the process of the artwork Ron T Beck, who is a fetishized non-person, only exists through the imitations of an external individual, in this case the artist. Charles M goes further to describe Cropenberger’s as having “[…]a number of side effects that symptomitise [it] such as flattened emotions, disjoints or disconnects, unexplained memory lapses or reverse amnesia.”

I particularly enjoyed the idea of reverse amnesia, being able to remember everything. This idea reminds me of networked culture in two ways. Firstly, we are becoming more dependent on the network for remembering. We can remember who we are mnemonically, and for the rest we have Google. Secondly, and more importantly, the Internet provides a democracy of information (I would like to qualify that statement, by adding that there is of course an economic exclusion to this democracy. It’s borders are patrolled by access). Almost any scrap of data is as easily accessible as the next. Search engines are quantitative not qualitative. Anything is as worthy of remembering as the next. The political universe of Battlestar Galactica is as accessible as the political universe of the Republic of South Africa.

The main quantum of the Internet is the link. The link is a rapid, interpretative form of connecting information. I would put forward the idea, but won’t argue it today, that the links become more important than the content. Rapidity, medium for hyper-interpretation, makes the Internet a paranoid place.

Ron T Beck’s appearances on the Web are either vaguely threatening, or document his dodgy exploits in some manner. But these moments are constituted from found objects, found images. The images are recontextualised and given an interpretation. Normal social encounters  and everyday images become strange and menacing. Any explosion, car crash or misdemeanour can be related back to Ron.

It’s important to note, too, that this artwork is funny. Humour, in this instance, becomes a way of normalizing, for the artwork to sit easily in our consciousness.

Politics of Paranoia

In politics, a tendency towards paranoia generally manifests itself in conspiracy.  Frederic Jameson defined conspiracy theories as “the poor person’s cognitive mapping.” Putting aside his rather odd lapse into class bias, cognitive mapping is a way of understanding the disparate elements of daily life, from contextualising our daily interactions at work, to having a grasp on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A breakdown occurs when these maps are too fragmented, or where everything seems equally important, and the links between maps become arbitrary. Example: Your boss hates you, and the government is doing bad things in Iraq. Hence, the connection, your boss is working fro the government, as part of the plot to install an Novus Ordo Seclorem. Often this kind of conspiracy is associated with a perceived loss of agency. To take a more real world example, Julius Malema recently accused British Journalist Jonah Fisher of being an agent (in fact, a bloody agent), ie someone who purposefully has a malicious agenda. Although, considering the way the BBC reports on South Africa, just because you are paranoid, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you.

However, there is another view of conspiracy, which points to it as the cognitive dissonance between liberal democracy and capitalist gain. Conspiracy becomes a real way of maneuvering for profit, while keeping a façade of democracy. An example would be the mysterious unmarked oil tanker that filled up recently in Libya. Ron T Beck also reflects this particular conspiracy, in his very employment, which sees him as the agent of such underbelly finangling.

The use of the Medium

It is notable that the Internet is operational for Beck not only for the source material for images, but also for the production of the artwork. The Internet has become the ultimate media and the ultimate fetish: It is taking on godlike proportions. The paranoia around this networking fetish can be seen in the 1991 Movie terminator 2:Judgement Day. The Armageddon comes into being through a self-aware network. “On August 4th Skynet goes online and begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes aware at 2:14 am Eastern Time on August 29th, 1997. In a panic, they try to pull the plug. And Skynet fights back.”

Ron T Beck and his use of media, however, takes on a bizarre turn. The network is both secretive and revelatory. Ron is hidden, but embedded into social media for his existence. Hence, he shares his exploits. The importance of Ron’s appearance on social media and blogs, is that like the function of humour, he becomes an easy part of our lives. His existence and casualness, point to our own complicity

To conclude, Ron T Beck is reflective of the fetishization of media and the politics of conspiracy. He only exists as your friend on Facebook or your viewing of his blog. He is an extension of us, our own involvement in the spectacle and our own complicity in the economics and politics of Capitalism.

Chad Rossouw is a Cape Town-based artist and writer.

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