Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Looking Back 100 Years

This morning I read the "appreciation" of Félix Fénéon by Luc Sante, which appeared in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books. Two things particularly stood out for me as evidence that our understanding of the present can be informed by an understanding of the past. Both have to do with disruptive times, which are precisely the circumstances in which we need to be as well-informed as possible.

The first concerned the anarchist movement at the end of the nineteenth century, in which Fénéon was vigorously (to say the least) involved in Paris. While the movement was not restricted to Paris (and, for that matter, had extended from Europe to the United States), Sante concentrates of the movement as Fénéon knew it. Sante wrote the following about what motivated these anarchists:

In the face of horrendous labor conditions, a vast and unbridgeable gap between rich and poor, minute surveillance of dissidents, and a draconian if capricious repression, the anarchists declared war on a power structure that was warring both against them and against the poor and unlettered who were in no position to fight back themselves.

This sort of language should be familiar to regular readers of The Rehearsal Studio, whether it involves my own dispatches from the front on the war against the poor or my analysis of Larisa Alexandrovna's thesis regarding the civil war that has now absorbed our country. It also throws light on that video and transcript of Osama bin Laden that found itself the center of so much wrongheaded misinterpretation. This sentence reminds us that bin Laden is continuing a tradition of protest that can be traced back over a century, the only real difference being that today's technology allows him to be far more destructive than his ideological predecessors were (not unlike our own military forces).

Needless to say, this argument does not justify bin Laden's behavior, but it throws an interesting light on that recent news regarding our Defense Department's "discovery" of the social world. Anthropologists may be part of the solution, particularly once we are immersed in active combat; but when we are trying to deal with terrorism, particularly in the face of distractions that try to call our efforts a "war on terrorism," we need to broaden the scope of our social thinking. Our knowledge of anthropology must be supplemented by a richer knowledge of history that is apparently currently taught in military colleges, where the historical focus appears to be on military engagements without paying enough attention to the contexts in which such engagements arose. Bin Laden is repeating a history of anarchism that we seem to have chosen to ignore; but, regardless of what Marx may have said, the repetition is turning out to be anything but farce.

The second item that stood our for me involve a later period of Fénéon's life when he turned to journalism. Sante offers a nice sketch of what newspapers were like in those days:

In 1906 the newspaper, around the world, was in its golden age. It enjoyed undisputed dominion over communication (radio would not come about for another decade and a half; movies and sound recordings were still in a primitive state), it existed in profusion (major cities would have from four or five to a dozen or more competing morning paper, and an only slightly smaller number of evening editions), and attempts to increase circulation resulted in gimmicks and experiments that were often trivial but sometimes ambitious and transformative (color comics sections, rotogravure supplements, graphics that broke across the column format). At the same time, just-the-facts impersonality had not yet been ratified as the official journalistic voice, which meant that pompous rhetoric and uninformed blather was often the norm in newspaper prose, but there was also an allowance for adventurous and unconventional writing of a sort that has seldom been seen in daily papers since. Whatever its merits or drawbacks, the newspaper ruled daily life. It represented the most visible incursion of the public sphere into the private.

While reading this I could not help but be reminded of the rant I posted yesterday under the title "The Illiterate Blogosphere." To some extent, of course, the blogosphere has turned that relationship between public and private on its head. The public sphere is no longer committing an act of incursion but, instead, is "responding to invitation," by responding to opportunities to submit comments. Part of my point yesterday, however, was that, even when coming in with an invitation, one can still behave as if one were engaged in incursion; but today we use the noun "flaming" instead of "incursion." Furthermore, the blogosphere has provided us with a new venue where "uninformed blather" is accepted as normative behavior; and it is an amusing coincidence of history that all this should be happening at a time when "citizen journalists" are once again experiments with "gimmicks and experiments" to bring more eyeballs to their Web pages. Is this an example of the repetition being farcical? It is probably too soon to answer this question, since we really cannot yet assess the impact of the blogosphere on normative behavior associated with the dissemination of news. That assessment will have to take consequences into account, and not enough of those consequences have manifested themselves yet.

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