Sep 23, 2012
Below is the text of a proposal I submitted to a conference entitled “Critical Speculations: Future Worlds, Perilous Histories, and Walter Benjamin Unbound” which will be held at SUNY Albany September 28-29, 2012
At the very end of his much-cited—and frequently misunderstood—essay on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, Walter Benajmin wrote, “Humanity, which once upon a time in Homer served as an object of fascination for the gods, has now become one for itself.”
As with much of that essay, this sentence is more true now than when it was written. While one need look no further than the ubiquity of reality television to appreciate this, it is actually in social media, and especially on Twitter, that this process achieves its mass apotheosis. Indeed, Twitter is the contemporary, virtual manifestation of the Parisian Arcades that Benjamin spent the last years of his life studying.
For Benjamin, the Arcades served as an allegorical crystallization of the far-reaching and irreversible changes wrought by the accelerated rise of modernity. The same must be said of Twitter with regard to the post-modern, post-industrial, hyper-mediated present. Indeed, like a living, electronic reef, Twitter is composed of the accreted micro-sentiments of mankind. As such, it provides a protean, hyperdimensional portrait of contemporary subjectivity in all its most trivial, absurd and sublime glory.
Just as the Parisian Arcades served as the birth- and the resting place of the flâneur, Twitter is the last refuge of the cyberflâneur. While Evgeny Morozov recently lamented the death of the cyberflâneur in the pages of the New York Times, insisting that the web was no longer a place where people wandered in search of shocks and curiosities but, instead, a place where they shopped, he failed to recognize the opportunities for flânerie offered by Twitter.
Morozov quotes the Polish sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, as saying, “The art that the flâneur masters is that of seeing without being caught looking.” Morozov goes on to write, “The flâneur was not asocial — he needed the crowds to thrive — but he did not blend in, preferring to savor his solitude.”
On Facebook, in which Morozov sees the erasure of cyberflânerie’s possibility, one must already be connected to people (however loosely) in order to observe them—the so-called “social graph” rules, while EdgeRank controls in many ways what one sees at all. On Twitter, however, you can actually observe the activity of anyone who has not “protected” their Tweets and there is no way for them to know that they are being observed (indeed, many on Twitter clearly do not realize that anyone can read what they write).
This actually allows one to peer into the social and even psychological lives of millions—a pleasure not granted Benjamin’s flâneur, who had to make do with street-life and window-shopping. Thus, while Twitter is an undenaibly mass medium, it is also strangely intimate and the flânerie afforded by it is as much psycho-social as cyber.
In “Paris: Capitol of the Nineteenth Century,” Benjamin explicitly links the flâneur and the prostitute, the “human as commodity.” This commoditization of the person—already implicit in the transformation of humans into objects of fascination and entertainment—was also highlighted by Morozov, who compared the modern web denizen, dogged by targeted, pay-per-click ads at every turn, to Benjamin’s “sandwich-board man.”
Again, Morozov missed something happening on a much deeper level. There is a saying in the social media world that goes, “If you aren’t paying, then you are the product.” What this means is, if you don’t have to pay to use Facebook, for example, then you are the product that Facebook is selling to its advertisers. The same holds true for Twitter, however, its owners have not yet figured out how to fully monetize the attention spent there. Ad-free (at least for now), Twitter actually becomes a kind of post-capitalist utopia of sociality free of economic constraints (thus echoing the utopianism Benjamin sensed in the bounty of the Arcade).
While Twitter may be relatively unfettered by commercialism, it is not free of the political. In fact, Twitter is a site (even arena) of intense political activity and open conflict. The interesting thing is that both right wing political activists and their anarchistic counterparts in the Occupy and Anonymous movements seem to make better use of Twitter than liberal or traditional leftwing forces.
By putting politics on display, we find on Twitter an aestheticization of politics by other means. Benjamin saw such an aestheticization as the hallmark of fascism, which, as he wrote, “sees its salvation in letting the masses express themselves (without, naturally, giving them their rights).” The question I hope to answer in this presentation, is whether the technology itself, as enabler of said aestheticization, actually betrays therewith its sub rosa, machinic ideology.