TikTok as Symptom: The Anti-Messianic

Taylor Dorrell
Pastiche Journal
Published in
7 min readNov 9, 2019


Americans are facing restrictions on TikTok while China is restricting the NBA. While the two both have market drives and differ in their ideologies in democracy, there is something that binds the two. Both the US and China see it in their favor to utilize any means necessary — culture being a main tool — to avoid what Walter Benjamin called a messianic event in their country (and perhaps trying to cause one in the other). It is not the data collection or economic impacts that should concern us, but the ideology behind TikTok and the NBA in relation to sustaining a ‘normal’ society.

After a Chinese company acquired the American app Musical.ly, creating the extremely popular app Tiktok, the US government opened a national security review in fear of data being sent to China and censorship of anti-China content.

After the general manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Chinese companies and the Chinese Basketball Association suspended ties to the team.

While the two situations seem rather different, they are nonetheless the grounds for somewhat of a new cultural cold war.

In most forms of entertainment, there is a perceived cloaking of the mechanisms beneath. It is hoped to be ‘entertainment, plus nothing’. However, when these mechanisms come to the forefront, they face a confrontation. Both TikTok and the NBA are private entities connected to these two governments who are silently at war.

When entertainment culture is unmasked, the results are the conflicts we see today. However, if we go farther in this apparent ‘unmasking’, perhaps we find the part that social media, sports, etc. play in a society displays not only how they function, but their purpose. The part they play in sustaining a ‘functioning’ society.

Apart of a CIA program to help promote ‘American ideals’ abroad, the CIA funded American abstract expressionists during the height of the cold war. Organizing shows abroad and funding the arts. It is however most important to acknowledge that the artists were completely unaware that their work was being used as propaganda. After all, how could abstract expressionism be seen as any kind of propaganda? It is here which the Marxist statement they do not know it, but they are doing it is most prevalent.

As abstract expressionism’s aura escapes any dogmatic intent of the meaning behind the work (relative to the socialist realists), the presentation itself (funded and utilized as propaganda by the US against Communism) provided the same cloaking of meaning. However, it is not just a cloaking (similar to Marx’s commodity fetishism — the commodity as a transcendent object that hides the labor involved in its production), it is the very process which is the mechanism at work today. It is not a mask with something to be exposed underneath, but this system as a whole including this ‘masking’. Likewise, today, after the revelations from Snowden, Assange, etc. we no longer live under the they do not know it, nonetheless they do it, but they know it, nonetheless they do it anyway.¹

TikTok and China, FaceApp and Russia, Facebook and the United States. It is no longer a perceived cloaking process that underneath each lie data collection and other methods of control, but a disconnect in seeing forms of implicit propaganda in each. Not only do we have these freedoms and beneath them lie systems of control (data collection, mass surveillance, the more we do the more the government and corporations know etc.), it is that this system is the best at maintaining social order and avoiding any kind of structural change. It is freedom and the branding of freedom which hold us back.

“One starts by agreeing that one has all the freedoms one wants- then one merely adds that the only thing missing is the ‘red ink’: we ‘feel free’ because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom… our ‘freedoms’ themselves serve to mask and sustain our deeper unfreedom.” Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, 2002

Walter Benjamin’s messianic event is what happens when time stands still as a major rupturing in the continuity of history takes place. It is the American system — perceived ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’, consumerist overabundance — which functions as being anti-messianic. Conformity to the present and therefore a reliance on future generations puts revolution as a revenge for the past. Through freedom, we consume our cheap commodities, fantasize of becoming millionaires, etc. There is no need for a shift of our course if we have freedom. We simply look to tweak our system within, there is no need for an event to stop this path to create a new one outside of our capitalist freedoms.

China is different in their authoritarianism. Beyond the more obvious situation in Hing Kong, a prime example of this is the new forms of surveillance which are different to the US. In Chinese cities, when a camera captures you jaywalking, instead of staying as an invisible big brother, a photo of the person along with an ID and address (found through facial recognition database) is posted on a giant screen publicly, sometimes on social media. Some cities also have short poles which spray water when someone passes it before the walk light changes. Not only are the pedestrians made aware of the presence of cameras, but they are instantly apart of a kind of show trial. If there are less police and military, instead of being replaced by technology that stays cloaked, they are replaced by technology with a physical presence.

It is here where protests in Hong Kong are causing time to stand still as this messianic event, fighting daily for inland China to loosen the grip on Hong Kong. However, similar to Cuba before Fidel Castro’s death, Hong Kong has to confront the idea that the new path this messianic event puts them on might be the one of the Americanized anti-messianic. One in which future issues will not be as clear to oppose as ones imposed by an authoritarian government.

It is in America’s interest for this to happen, which is where the NBA and TikTok seem much more important than how they appear in the news and online. It is not that China has Americans’ TikTok data or is filtering out anti-China content, but that TikTok and the NBA both play a role in sustaining a culture of the anti-messianic. Blending apps and sports implies the two as tools not just for implicit propaganda, but methods of distraction and conformity.

Noam Chomsky has been known to label sports as a medium of conformity in its function to utilize the same critical thinking structure of politics, but minus the controversy while providing a real sense of impact (unlike politics). We engage in critical and lengthy debates of the latest trade, make predictions, we feel apart of the process.

“One of the functions that things like professional sports play, in our society and others, is to offer an area to deflect people’s attention from things that matter, so that the people in power can do what matters without public interference.”²

It is not simply that the powerful benefit from a distracted public. In a way, sports and entertainment act as a fantasy to support a view of a functioning ‘normal’ society. To function, the mechanisms that lie beneath it, must remain under an apolitical mask. As Jacques Lacan observes, when we initiate the process of ‘going through the fantasy’, or ‘unmasking’ it, we should see that our ‘normal’ society is held to appear ‘normal’ only through these fantasies. Although this was precisely the case in China’s response to the NBA (after finding out that people in the NBA shattered this apolitical mask, they cut ties), the common response is that even after this ‘going through the fantasy’, we nonetheless act as though the mask is still there to continue living in a ‘normal functioning’ society (think of the sports site Deadspin and their fight to ‘stick to sports’).

Confronting today’s issues are therefore not as simple as installing our flavor of freedoms across the world or tweaking our own. What is clear, is that we face a crisis today, not in the future, of confronting the pressing structural mechanisms. The youthful climate movements might have the most promise in their understanding that it is the ‘adults’ of today who are responsible for the climate crises of tomorrow. If we are to avoid such a crisis, it won’t be through the channels of tweaking from within, but through a messianic event which understands the overbearing structures of ideology.

The issues in regards to TikTok and the NBA display that maintaining an anti-messianic culture requires a mechanism of not just masking systems of control and propaganda that support the hegemonic ideology, but sustaining it through our preference for a fantasy driven ‘normal’ society. “That things are “status quo” is the catastrophe … hell is not something that awaits us, but this life here and now.” Walter Benjamin, from the essays On the Concept of History and Central Park.

  1. Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 1989
  2. Noam Chomsky, Why Americans Know So Much About Sports https://www.alternet.org/2014/09/noam-chomsky-why-americans-know-so-much-about-sports-so-little-about-world-affairs/