Matthew T Grant


Tall Guy. Glasses.

Is That True?

I once worked for a CEO who would, when someone made a declarative statement such as, “Toothpaste is made with formaldehyde and detergent,” frequently ask, “Is that true?”

It always surprised me how disarmed I felt when he would ask me that question, for, frankly, it inevitably made me realize how infrequently I asked that question myself. In some cases, of course, the question would have been superfluous because the case in point was so commonsensical.

In other cases, admittedly, I was simply naive or embarrassingly uncritical.

Still, I have found that this question, when I pose it myself, almost inevitably makes people uncomfortable. This may be because, once posed, it causes people to reflect on their unconscious assumptions and unreflected credulity, and they are perhaps thereby a bit chagrined.

It could also be because, when someone asks you, “Is that true?,” they aren’t really asking you to back up your claims, they are, instead calling you either an idiot or a liar.

@WalterBenjamin: Twitter, Cyberflânerie, and the Aestheticization of Politics

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.

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Fundamentalism vs. Liberalism

I just realized that in two recent posts, one on class warfare and the other on the Web, I raised the issue of “neutrality.”

In the first instance, I was considering the neutrality of the state and specifically the liberal, constitutional state. If “equality before the law” is the ideal behind this state form, then, at least theoretically, the state should be “neutral.” Of course, no state is ever neutral; its laws and actions ultimately betray some kind of bias towards this or that social group.

In the second instance, I was talking more about a “safe” place, imagining that the Web actually represents a space that escapes the exigencies and conflicts that characterize the physical or geographical space we as humans normally inhabit. While the web can offer a kind of anonymous way out of (or way around) this world, however, it is inevitably embedded in this world and its various flows can and are regularly re-directed, surveilled and blocked by worldly powers.

I point this out because it reminded me that this question of neutrality is ultimately the central question dividing fundamentalism and liberalism.

The fundamentalist view says, “No. There is no neutrality, no ambiguity. The world is divided between good and evil, the righteous and the wicked, God and Satan. You are either for me or against me. You must take a side.”

The liberal view, on the contrary, opines,”The world is ambiguous. There are grey areas and there is much that is as yet unknown. Therefore, rather than seeing the world and its conflicts in absolute terms, we will instead decide on a shared set of standards by which we will determine what is what. These standards are universal and neutral and can be applied in any circumstance and, in fact, the more people we can engage in the application of these standards and the rational discussion of the issues and challenges we as humans confront, the closer we will come to establishing a just and peaceful world.”

So, fundamentalism or liberalism: Which side are you on?