August 13, 2008

MySpace Pokes Max Weber via Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin’s “close-ups” amidst what he believed to be the “revolutionary” developments in reproductive technologies have only led to the glamorization of the subject. Even if cinematic technologies had once facilitated a Marxist polemic, as Benjamin believed they ultimately could, (a la Battleship Potemkin,) they have also been employed to project ad hoc amalgams of Freudian and existential angst, Christian sublimation, nationalism, bourgeois consumer culture, and, Benjamin’s greatest fear, fascism. Ordinarily we know cinema to revel in bone sapping sentimentalism, interpersonal intrigue, and the vulgar “realism” of car chases and violence. The bombardment of visuals and advertisements in an "attention-deficit" culture, more generally, only makes the cult of subjectivity easy. So visual technologies can certainly dramatize the banal events we know so well; and they can do so to such gargantuan extent that they have only solipsistic value for audiences. At such moments, we are left literally speechless.

Even when technological means are distributed amongst the populace they do not at all demonstrate their own emancipatory imperatives. At the minimum they can be said to brandish the accoutrements of power, as they spread the hype of “plugging in” and getting “connected.” Here Benjamin knew technology could also easily be appropriated by the likes of Riefenstahl, (and if he were around, perhaps Oliver Stone too.) It is difficult to forget that existing industries have vested interests in existing technologies, as well as in the cultural and political regimes supporting them. We can only hope that technological advances will enable us to speak and think intelligently, not so that we are constantly immersed in petty gossip about our middle-class lives, but so that we can open and share political space.

Of course, most any meaningful exercise of political action will inevitably imply a mediated presence. The worry however should be that it will get mired in photo-ops, and spin-out in all sorts of ways from public enemy numero uno to glossy celebrity narcissism. Obamamania is an obvious example, as is Angelina and Brad. The ultimate end, as Max Weber would have stressed, is that those who are to truly practice the political "vocation," must ultimately commit everyday to waging a countervailing political action. So yes, the ability to speak and think in soundbytes, along with online fundraising, would have to become part of the craft. Medias today are the event, or so it seems, in the world of Nuzak. But the gesinnungspolitiker would also have to somehow resist and deny his or her own self-glamorization, even in spite of the technologies and networks advancing it. What Weber referred to as the "duty" of "genuine political leadership" was not so much to adapt to existing conditions but to fight for something held to be extremely valuable, and to ultimately resuscitate the virtues and skills of civic action. Though Weber's elitist laments may not exactly be democratic they provide insights into what democratic politics needs today.

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