Monday, March 31, 2008

Forecasting Consequences of Technology

My reading of John Dewey's Art as Experience seems to have led me to Walter Benjamin, particularly "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility," but also other essays he wrote around the same time (1936) dealing with "art in a technological age." That last quote is a Section Heading provided by editors Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings in the third volume of the Belknap Press Selected Writings collection. It has been a while since I have dug into Benjamin's writings. I think the last time I did so was in January of 2001, when I found a copy of the Reflections collection in the Old Lahaina Book Emporium while my wife and I were taking some vacation time before the beginning of that year's Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. On the other hand it was about a year ago that I saw Clive James discussing his book, Cultural Amnesia, on Book TV; and it seemed as if, among all the many authors he had read, Benjamin was the one he disliked most intensely.

Reading "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility," it is not hard to see what drove James up the wall. The text rambles on with considerable verbiage, much of which is highly opaque; and, while each section is relatively small, it usually comes with a set of notes longer than the section itself, which abound with references that, while familiar to Benjamin and many of his contemporary readers, require explanation from the editors. Still, this essay at least, whose focus is primarily on cinema with some attention to photography, is an important complement to Dewey. For, while Dewey's lectures were delivered in 1932, he never recognized either of these two media in terms of the experiences they induce or the esthetic qualities of those experiences. For those who wonder what experiences would have been available to Dewey, bear in mind that Charlie Chaplin made City Lights in 1931. Also, Carl Theodor Dreyer made La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc in 1928, although I have no idea when or where it was first possible to see this cinematic masterpiece in the United States. Thus, it may well be that Dewey viewed Chaplin's work as too "popular" to merit serious esthetic consideration and may have had no exposure to Dreyer.

However, not only does Benjamin fill a gap that Dewey really should not have ignored; but also he has a keener (if more pessimistic) sense of the relationship between esthetic and other experiences. He thus comes off as chillingly prescient when, in one of his notes, he allows his thoughts about cinema to migrate into thoughts about politics:

The crisis of democracies can be understood as a crisis in the conditions governing the public presentation of politicians. Democracies exhibit the politician directly, in person, before elected representatives. The parliament is his public. But innovations in recording equipment now enable the speaker to be heard by an unlimited number of people while he is speaking, and to be seen by an unlimited number shortly afterward. This means that priority is given to presenting the politician before the recording equipment. Parliaments are becoming depopulated at the same time as theaters. Radio and film are changing not only the function of the professional actor but, equally, the function of those who, like the politician, present themselves before these media. The direction of this change is the same for the film actor and the politician, regardless of their different tasks. It tends toward the exhibition of controllable, transferable skills under certain social conditions, just as sports first called for such exhibition under certain natural conditions. This results in a new form of selection—selection before an apparatus—from which the champion, the star, and the dictator emerge as victors.

In this case we need to engage a bit of historical context for Benjamin. While this essay first appeared in published form in 1936, he began work on it in Paris in the autumn of 1935. That is an important time if we consider that Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph des Willens was first released in Germany on March 28, 1935. There can be no doubt that the dictator who emerges as victor by virtue of "selection before an apparatus" is Adolf Hitler; and the "apparatus" is under Riefenstahl's control.

However, if the conscious connection to Hitler is chilling (which Benjamin probably intended it to be), the unintended forecasting of American political practices is even more so. In Benjamin's own time Franklin Roosevelt was already presenting himself before the medium of radio with his Fireside Chats, while in 1960 Richard Nixon learned the hard way that a televised "debate" was not about making points with successful argumentation but about how one presented oneself before the medium of television broadcasting. The most salient passage from the Benjamin quote, however, concerns the depopulation of legislative bodies due to the priority "given to presenting the politician before the recording equipment." Had I not written last week about Newt Gingrich delivering a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, which, at the time, was "depopulated" except for the C-SPAN cameras, these words might not have leapt out at me with quite so much impact. However, if Benjamin had Hitler in mind when, in his principal text, he wrote about how "the cult of the audience" could reinforce "the corruption by which fascism is seeking to supplant the class consciousness of the masses," then Gingrich's little stunt was "one small step" in the same direction for an American politician; and it is now a matter of record that, by the time he achieved a position of influence and power, Karl Rove had no trouble with a "giant leap" in the same direction!

There is a sad irony to all of this. Dewey saw the esthetic experience as enhancing our sense of reality, disclosing that which could not be revealed through positivist propositions. Perhaps he ignored the cinema because (by virtue of its being too popular?) he could not see it achieving such enhancements; so Benjamin "took up the slack," so to speak, and explored the capacity of the medium for corrupting that same sense of reality. However, another future that he could not have anticipated was that technology would simplify the use of the "apparatus" to such an extent that it would be far more democratized than it was when one could neither make nor distribute cinema without the support of some major (usually business) institution. The result of such democratization, as YouTube has demonstrated, has been (with a few notable exceptions) a trivialization of the content; and trivializing the content leads to blunting any impact that the content may have. In other words we no longer need agonize over whether democratized video enhances or corrupts our sense of reality, because there is too damned much of it to have much effect in either direction.

However, if Benjamin could not anticipate how technology could democratize an apparatus that had once been controlled by a privileged few, he also could not anticipate a culture that could become obsessed with technological innovation for its own sake. The innovator who disregards consequences may well conceive another "rough beast" that then "Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born;" and, if those consequences are directed towards our sense of reality, then it is our obligation to ponder whether the impact will be sharp or blunt before the beast gets anywhere near Bethlehem. On the other hand, as I continue to watch John Adams, I am reminded how much of the "civilized" world viewed American democracy as such a "rough beast;" so perhaps it is less important to worry about fending off consequences than it is being prepared to cope with them!

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