Anti-Capitalist Meet-Up: The Media Landscape After the Culture War by Annieli
Every war seems permanent as does every revolution until it ends which requires much in the way of interpreting rather than explaining the victory to the vanquished, even in mediated spaces that can digitally define cultural landscapes. How possible is it to consider Walter Benjamin‘s point on the failure of historical materialism “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was.’ It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger”? More specifically how do we treat cultural danger as presented in the meme of “Culture War” and how can we incorporate Marxist analysis to remediate or reconcile the memories that emerge in momentary crisis that obscure the critically real history embodied and assess their actual danger or risk. Landscapes have that same problem of memory, as actual experience of an expansive and contemplative view of a world or as saved representations of concrete and abstract journeys through those same worlds. The first is individually ontological whereas the latter is a social ontology representing and reproducing an historical relationship to others in a cultural context. Both involve human labor at various scales but it is the crises of value and meaning assigned to those experiences that inform global discourses of war and environment on an unprecedented scale and scope. Today’s culture wars find themselves waging these combative discourses in a media landscape or Medienlandschaft.
The phrase culture war represents a loan translation (calque) from the German Kulturkampf. The German word, Kulturkampf, was used to describe the clash between cultural and religious groups in the campaign from 1871 to 1878 under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of the German Empire against the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. In American usage the term culture war is used to claim that there is a conflict between those values considered traditionalist or conservative and those considered progressive or liberal. It originated in the 1920s when urban and rural American values came into clear conflict. This followed several decades of immigration to the cities by people considered alien to earlier immigrants. It was also a result of the cultural shifts and modernizing trends of the Roaring 20s, culminating in the presidential campaign of Al Smith. However, the “culture war” in United States of America was redefined by James Davison Hunter’s 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. In this work, it is traced to the 1960s. The perceived focus of the American culture war and its definition have taken various forms since then.
“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge–unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.” Walter Benjamin (1940)
In such historical landscapes who are “cultural workers” and what does cultural work as contrasted with cultural objects look like, is it different of the same as all kinds of work and what kinds of value does it produce or more directly can individuals produce “particular kinds of independent and critical reflexivity modelled on the autonomy of the work of art” (Bennett 2011, and Bennett 2009) Societies exist in such landscapes and their collective experiences are often organized or reproduced as mass spectacles, either actual or mediated and consumed in a variety of ways, often driven by tragedy or circumstance.
A well-ordered society would like the bodies which compose it to have the perceptions, sensations and thoughts which correspond to them. Now this correspondence is perpetually disturbed. There are words and discourses which freely circulate, without master, and which divert bodies from their destinations, engaging them in movements in the neighbourhood of certain words: people, liberty, equality, etc. There are spectacles which disassociate the gaze from the hand and transform the worker into an aesthete.
What kinds of spectacles effect these transformations? Do they bear a family resemblance to the manufacturing of consent where spectacles include all forms of mediated politics and of course the intersecting claims of “entertainment” as with Limbaugh the entertainer (“Okay, so I am an entertainer, and I have 20 million listeners”) as a form of reactionary cultural work. It would be easy to say the following if we could identify the “concrete historical context” and since there are multiple mediations, how would a dialectical method of analysis explain rather than merely interpret such products of culture with multiple tropes of cultural war contesting for domination.
In short, mass-mediated products are determined by various factors—the systems of ownership, the process of cultural production, the level of struggle, the state of consciousness in society at a given time, and so on. A dialectical method of analysis would involve studying all these factors within a concrete historical context so as to explain the multiple mediations that infuse a product of culture
For example, while dystopian, there are multiple ideologies at work in the following example of spectacular speculation where doomsday prepping and its media representations are in reality a capitalist industry that exploits the potential danger of refugees coming from cities to attack rural preppers in a variety of romanticized post-apocalypse scenarios. These narratives have a burgeoning market appealing to a variety of religious and political secessionists all with disposable income or transferable construction skills for survival. They become amplified by the seasonal and media driven rise in firearms purchases. All of these actions represent desires for a kind of aesthetic autonomy, however driven by social underdevelopment.
Ron Douglas, for example, has gathered enough supplies to keep his eight person family (two parents, six children) functioning off the grid for a year. His supplies can be broken into four categories: food, energy, shelter, and protection. He’s become such an expert that he is one of the founders of Red Shed Media Group, a business that organizes Prepper expos (40,000 attendees at $10 a person), has a hugely popular podcast radio program, and owns the rights to successful survivalist books.
Under the fold the concrete becomes either more wet or more abstract.
Reproducing the fears of world wars and post-war nuclear holocaust remains a goal for many interest groups whether as video game or end-times political rhetoric and overdetermines as well as oversimplifies the dialectical conflicts by reifying a variety of Others. Predatory capitalism makes these fearsome representations of social life a means for stimulating the production of cultural capital. Spectacles help to mobilize the markets for the consumption of fear as mediated crises promote both the consumption of political capital and commodity fetishism. Such narratives become their own algorithmic commodity in a vast online war-gaming world. Imagining a post-apocalyptic world from one’s living room or basement implies a view of everyday life that returns the survivors to amore primordial “state of nature” even here represented as a prepper video game,
Are these Guy Debord‘s spectacles where “The Spectacle corresponds to the historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonisation of social life.” “Just as baroque culture created the spectacle as a means of suborning mass populations in order to induce them into conformity through pleasure, so the modern world of consumerism can also be seen as a spectacle.”…”In all its specific manifestations – news or propaganda, advertising or the actual consumption of entertainment – the spectacle epitomises the prevailing model of social life.”
Mediation in Marxist theory refers to the reconciliation of two opposing forces within a given society (i.e. the cultural and material realms, or the superstructure and base) by a mediating object. Similar to this, within media studies the central mediating factor of a given culture is the medium of communication itself. The popular conception of mediation refers to the reconciliation of two opposing parties by a third, and this is similar to its meaning in both Marxist theory and media studies. For Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, this mediating factor is capital or alternately labor, depending on how one views capitalist society (capital is the dominant mediating factor, but labor is another mediating factor that could overthrow capital as the most important one).
To give a concrete example of this, a worker making shoes in a shoe factory is not only producing shoes, but potential exchange-value. The shoes are commodities that can be sold for cash. In this way, the value of the labor of the worker is the exchange-value of the shoes he or she produces minus his or her compensation. At the same time, however, the shoes produced have certain social or cultural values as well. If they are Nikes, for example, they may symbolize athletic prowess and style. In this way, the worker’s labor is mediating between the economic or exchange-value of the shoes, and their social or cultural, or symbolic value.
In the 19th Century shoe making was not unlike gun-making in the relatively small scale workshops that become eventually enlarged after wars and under Fordist production but ultimate outsourced in the latter part of the 20th Century as post-Fordism
This question of the social distribution of cultural practices in the 21st Century is not so dissimilar to the issues addressed by William Morris in the 19th Century. In the nineteenth Century the fear of industrialization and the decline in the quality of consumer goods created fragmentation in cultural work where design may have been seen as a remedy to dehumanization in industrial organization as well as the means for improving everyday life. The onset of larger scale national conflict created greater millennialist fears. Movements like the Arts & Crafts movements attempted to improve production by focusing on the quality of smaller batch production and to serve as exemplars for reforming the production process. A variety of idealisms are associated with this including a desire to replicate earlier modes of artisanal production such as those preceding the ear of the Renaissance artist Raphael.
Thomas Cole Destruction of Empire from the The Course of Empire (5 parts) 1836
The Arts and Crafts movement exists in overlapping parallel with
pre-raphaelitism in the latter half of the nineteenth Century to resist the tendencies of quality decline in the production of upper-class consumer goods since the prior century. The latter embraced the identification with a romanticized mode of production primarily due to the proliferation of narratives reviving a variety of genres sympathetic to the increased alienation of individuals in a early modern society.
The principles were deliberately non-dogmatic, since the pre-raphaelite brotherhood wished to emphasise the personal responsibility of individual artists to determine their own ideas and methods of depiction. Influenced by Romanticism, the members thought freedom and responsibility were inseparable. Nevertheless, they were particularly fascinated by medieval culture, believing it to possess a spiritual and creative integrity that had been lost in later eras. The emphasis on medieval culture clashed with principles of realism which stress the independent observation of nature.
Apocalyptic thinking in the 19th Century was at one level a consciousness of modernism and industrialization whose resistance was less machine breaking than understanding the conflict between the social organization of labor and the creation of surplus value and at another as economic development and urbanization promote new forms of consumer culture. So was Morris a DFH? Perhaps but as a political activist he embodied the concerns both for social change and a reconsideration of the role of the artist as a cultural worker in an age of mechanical reproduction where a broader understanding of the role of capital was necessary.
From a later perspective, Stansky concludes that:
Morris’s views on the environment, on preserving what is of value in both the natural and “built” worlds, on decentralising bloated government, are as significant now as they were in Morris’s own time, or even more so. Earlier in the twentieth century, much of his thinking, particularly its political side, was dismissed as sheer romanticism. After the Second World War, it appeared that modernisation, centralisation, industrialism, rationalism – all the faceless movements of the time – were in control and would take care of the world. Today, when we have a keen sense of the shambles of their efforts, the suggestions which Morris made in his designs, his writings, his actions and his politics have new power and relevance.
In ‘Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform’ (1898), Howard argued that the poverty and slum conditions suffered by many living in late Victorian Britain could be alleviated by building ‘garden cities’. These were to combine the best features of the town and country
Mass cultural consumption makes its workers into aesthetes and the arcade as a prototypical shopping mall facilitates that transformation in the urban context, a situation which has not changed as the Modern age has moved from the trade among regional market centers to broader markets for consumption and larger divisions of labor. We trace an ambulatory path through these new sites for consumption that are now documented by our cell phones.
The arcades are, certainly, a “primordial landscape of consumption” – temples of the commodity, with their seductively displayed, endlessly varied wares: “binoculars and flower seeds, screws and musical scores, makeup and stuffed vipers, fur coats and revolvers”. They were created for purposes of profit, or indeed sheer speculation, offering the buildings’ owners unrivalled financial opportunities by concentrating so many rent-paying undertakings within a small space. Seen from one point of view, then, they are archetypal manifestations of the expanding market economy – creations of private enterprise and sources of profit, and most certainly not part of any public works project. The goods displayed are commodities – objects existing for profit above utility, manifestations of exchange value rather than use value: for Benjamin, they participate in the “fetishism of the commodity”, the mystificatory conversion of human-made products into objects of irrational worship, which Marx classically analysed and denounced in the first volume of Capital. link
These are the spectacular sites of transformation an idealized place for Marx’s view of commodity fetishism now made more abstract by online capital exchange and mediated by spectacles for consumption as in the Superbowl advertising that depends on remediation for its effect in an advert that was aired only once
As against this, the commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.
— Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I
Hyperrealism and hypercapitalism creates as did the mass production of print media in the 19 Century created new consumer markets and so does the digital networking of information at the 20th-21st Century. Media is no longer about medium in plurality but the praxis of mediation and remediation in more complex networks.
all mediation is remediation. We are not claiming this as an a priori truth, but rather arguing that at this extended historical moment, all current media function as remediators and that remediation offers us a means of interpreting the work of earlier media as well. Our culture conceives of each medium or constellation of media as it responds to, redeploys, competes with, and reforms other media. In the first instance, we may think of something like a historical progression, of newer media remediating older ones and in particular of digital media remediating their predecessors. But ours is a genealogy of affiliations, not a linear history, and in this genealogy, older media can also remediate newer ones
In this sense we are cursed with perhaps endlessly reproducing the sensibilities of genre driven notions of Romanticism as well as a media landscape that requires a more sophisticated understanding of social capital as a type of cultural capital produced and mediated by cultural work.
In The Forms of Capital (1986), Bourdieu distinguishes between three types of Cultural capital: embodied, objectified and institutionalised (Bourdieu, 1986:47). (Later he adds symbolic capital (resources available to an individual on the basis of honor, prestige or recognition) to this list.)
Embodied cultural capital consists of both the consciously acquired and the passively “inherited” properties of one’s self (with “inherited” here used not in the genetic sense but in the sense of receipt over time, usually from the family through socialization, of culture and traditions). Cultural capital is not transmissible instantaneously like a gift or bequest; rather, it is acquired over time as it impresses itself upon one’s habitus (character and way of thinking), which in turn becomes more attentive to or primed to receive similar influences. Linguistic capital, defined as the mastery of and relation to language (Bourdieu, 1990:114), can be understood as a form of embodied cultural capital in that it represents a means of communication and self-presentation acquired from one’s surrounding culture.
Objectified cultural capital consists of physical objects that are owned, such as scientific instruments or works of art. These cultural goods can be transmitted both for economic profit (as by buying and selling them with regard only to others’ willingness to pay) and for the purpose of “symbolically” conveying the cultural capital whose acquisition they facilitate. However, while one can possess objectified cultural capital by owning a painting, one can “consume” the painting (understand its cultural meaning) only if one has the proper foundation of conceptually and/or historically prior cultural capital, whose transmission does not accompany the sale of the painting (except coincidentally and through independent causation, such as when a vendor or broker chooses to explain the painting’s significance to the prospective buyer).
Institutionalized cultural capital consists of institutional recognition, most often in the form of academic credentials or qualifications, of the cultural capital held by an individual. This concept plays its most prominent role in the labor market, in which it allows a wide array of cultural capital to be expressed in a single qualitative and quantitative measurement (and compared against others’ cultural capital similarly measured). The institutional recognition process thereby eases the conversion of cultural capital to economic capital by serving as a heuristic that sellers can use to describe their capital and buyers can use to describe their needs for that capital.
Our barbarism has placed humanity in a more perilous moment in global environmental history threatened not only by nuclear self-annihilation, but by our own mediated ignorance of ecological failure or as Benjamin uses the dialectic:
Dialectical images counter the threat of preservation (tradition) by virtue of the interruptive force they are understood to impart to experience as a consequence of the instantaneous temporality of the now, or what Benjamin famously called now-time [Jetztzeit]: “The dialectical image is an image that emerges suddenly, in a flash” (AP, [N9, 7], 473). It is this image of the image as a ‘flash’ [ein aufblitzendes] and the corresponding image of historical experience as the discharge of an explosive force—the explosive force of now-time, blasting open ‘the continuum of history’—for which Benjamin is probably best known. The philosophy of historical time which these images sum up was elaborated by him in two main contexts: the development of a new conception of cultural history and a political diagnosis of the historical crisis of Europe at the outset of the Second World War. Benjamin did not see culture as threatened by ‘barbarism’, so much as itself being implicated in it:
Barbarism lurks in the very concept of culture—as the concept of a fund of values which is considered independent not, indeed, of the production process in which these values originated, but of the one in which they survive. In this way they serve the apotheosis of the latter, barbaric as it may be. (AP = The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland & Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge, MA. & London: Belknap Press, 1999. [N5a, 7] 467–8)
As a closing example of how so many of what counts as aesthetic are highly segmented and media information-driven commodities, the notion of a people’s art is reflected upon by two artists influenced by a youth spent in the Soviet Union.
Komar and Melamid’s http://www.diacenter.org/km/index.html
Dia Art Centre’s (USA) second artists’ project for the world wide web, begun in 1995, was created by the Russian emigrant artist team Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid. The Most Wanted paintings, as well as the Least Wanted paintings, reflect the artists’ interpretation of a professional market research survey about aesthetic preferences and taste in painting. Intending to discover what a true “people’s art” would look like, the artists, with the support of the Nation Institute, hired Marttila & Kiley, Inc. to conduct the first poll. In 1994, they began the process which resulted in America’s Most Wanted and America’s Least Wanted paintings, which were exhibited in New York at the Alternative Museum under the title “People’s Choice.”