The French philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman coined the term “disimagination machine” in order to describe the ruthless manipulation and obfuscation of art, evidence, and images by regimes wishing to oppress the public’s views, as well as experiences, of the past. The atrocities committed by the Nazis represent, for Didi-Huberman, the ultimate example of how the “disimagination machine” has been used in an attempt to alter and erase an entire culture from view.
In his new book, The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America’s Disimagination Machine, scholar and cultural critic Henry Giroux, a founding theorist of critical pedagogy in the United States, believes that this term could easily be applied to the current state of American cultural and political affairs.
“We live in a time of deep foreboding, one that haunts any discourse about justice, democracy and the future. The ‘disimagination machine’ is both a set of cultural apparatuses extending from schools and mainstream media to the new sites of screen culture, and a public pedagogy that functions primarily to undermine the ability of individuals to think critically, imagine the unimaginable, and engage in thoughtful and critical dialogue: put simply, to become critically informed citizens of the world.”
Working in the intellectual traditions of Hannah Arendt and Noam Chomsky, Giroux argues that the United States has become a society almost entirely disengaged from the political and cultural activism in which it was founded. Rather, America now views public intellectual discourse and critical thought with suspicion, even disdain, while actively encouraging forms of historical and moral amnesia. The banalities of celebrity culture are now our primary concern and the voices of anti-intellectuals, such as the politicians Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum and the pundits Bill O’Reilly and Anne Coulter, are now the most prominent of all. It is evidence of a “disturbing assault on critical thinking, if not rationale thought itself,” says Giroux. “Under a neoliberal regime, the language of authority, power and command is divorced from ethics, social responsibility, critical analysis and social costs.”
The “disimagination machine” stems from the neoliberal mode of thinking, which is now stronger than ever. Giroux defines neoliberalism as an economic and political policy and/or project that believes there is no such thing as the common good, that market value provides a template for governing social life, that consumerism is the only obligation of citizenship, and that the welfare state is the enemy of freedom. Its reach can be seen in the pervasive influence of well-funded conservative think tanks, the pseudo-intellectuals and religious fundamentalists they support, and the rafts of misinformation they have helped to create, such as the controversies surrounding vaccine administration, the campaigns against the environmental movement, and the proclaimed war on women’s reproductive rights.
Neoliberalist forces have worked hard to create a culture that collectively forgets historical struggles against racist modes of thought, the militarization of society, and the implementation of a surveillance state. They have achieved this by elevating institutions that produce a vocabulary of isolation and civic disengagement. News and journalism is more concerned with entertaining than educating, while rampart consumerism is breaking traditional communal bonds, encouraging predatory financial practices, and making it difficult for individuals to see themselves as part of any public realm. “Under such circumstances, there is little room for thinking critically and acting collectively in ways that are imaginative and courageous,” writes Giroux.
The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America’s Disimagination Machine is both an indictment of America’s current state of affairs and a wake-up call for anyone who has felt the restrictions of contemporary U. S. society as it increasingly trades in freedom for a new and frightening paradigm. As one of North America’s most exciting and engaged intellectuals, Henry Giroux has written a thorough, passionate, and convincing call to arms.
Of the book, Bill Moyers said, “Giroux refuses to give in or give up. The Violence of Organized Forgetting is a clarion call to imagine a different America—just, fair, and caring—and then to struggle for it.”