Austerity Blues, Supremacist Whites, and Digital Reds

In reading the chapters this week from Austerity Blues, I couldn’t help but see the history of the SUNY/CUNY struggle through the haunting glow of Nelson Rockefeller’s ego.

Figure 1: Nelson Rockefeller showing his respect for SUNY students, 1976.

To share some personal bias, I am completely spellbound by the vile and repugnant history of the Rockefeller dynasty. It is truly a family history I love to hate. They are completely entwined with many horrors of history– chiefly the support and maintenance of American white supremacy.

With the exception of his scandalous death, Nelson’s legacy remains largely untarnished in the neo-liberal telling of history. As the namesake of “Rockefeller republican”, he is sometimes retroactively praised for his expansions of public goods and work against discrimination. He may have been the most progressive Rockefeller, even on issues of race, but that is a bar you couldn’t lower without a shovel. Continue reading

TimBerners-Lee Information Management

It’s hard for me to remember a time when the World Wide Web did not exist, but it is a somewhat recent invention that has changed the course of how we interact with and engage with the world.  I’m not quite sure that Tim Berners-Lee envisioned the FULL potential of his idea and the rapidity with which it was adopted at the time of his Information Management proposal to his director, Mike Sendall, at CERN (which according to Sendall was a “Vague, but exciting” proposal).  Nevertheless, perhaps it is the vagueness that Sendall refers to that has allowed for the WWW to grow so quickly.  It seems so obvious now that information should be connected the way it is through hypertext online, but the right social and political forces were necessary and the right people needed to create it, as many of this week’s readings pointed out.

TimBL’s idea was born out of a problem: the need to organize workflows on projects he was involved with at CERN in 1989 and the frustration he was experiencing with limited access to the voluminous information being gathered/created at the institution in addition to the valuable information that was being lost due to employee turnover and constant change and development in the work CERN was doing.  By developing an Information Management System that linked different “nodes” (which could be documents, projects, people, software, etc.) of information through hypertext, regardless of which systems were used to create the nodes, TimBL proposed that a web of information connections would provide more complete access to the “pools” of information being developed at CERN and the loss of such information would be mitigated.  It is important to stress that despite the hierarchical nature of an organization like CERN, TimBL witnessed that the actual behavior of the institution among the many discreet departments and projects operated like a web where “interconnections evolved over time” and a benefit is to be had if more people contribute to the pools of information within the web.

Therefore, his Information Management System would need to be flexible and open enough to provide the access to various nodes of information among the many departments and individuals at the organization, as well as provide the ability for users to make their own contributions.  Luckily, as many of this week’s readings have pointed out, there has been an historically strong ethos for shared and open access so that technology can continue to develop freely and openly (even with competing commercial/political interests and motivations).

He also recognized that CERN was not unique and that many organizations operated in the same function that would benefit from the same kind of information management system (perhaps he did envision a grand potential for this as his proposal mentions the potential commercial usefulness).  His success at creating linked networks and hyperlinked text and media (which definitely made his job at CERN easier), consequently provided the foundation for the rest of the world’s information to be searched for and accessed at the stroke of a few keys or pokes on a screen (at least for those in the world with access to the internet).

Despite the many great advances that have been made for providing networked information online, there’s still a long way to go for achieving universal access to the collective knowledge of humanity.  What social and political forces are necessary to continue the momentum and who will lead us there?  What will the 50th anniversary of the World Wide Web look like?

Roy Rosenzweig, History of the Internet

Rosenzweig’s essay concerns itself with a singular issue facing today’s historians and historiographers: namely, how might the history of the Internet be written?  As a “review essay,” most of the article’s pages are spent providing summaries and critical evaluations of recent works that try to write this history.  Each work is shown to describe their subject in markedly different ways, and none of the variations seem to fully please Rosenzweig; however, he does voice his appreciation of these authors’ efforts every now and again. It is to my mind noteworthy that this history is such a thorny problem to begin with, for it is perhaps indicative of the nature of historiography itself–considering most historical works focus on the all-too-human aspects of the events of the world (although not all, Braudel’s geological history of the Mediterranean comes to mind), historians, once they come face to face with computers, the very epitome of the artificial, do not quite know how or where to begin.

I have not read any of the authors Rosenzweig mentions; however, there are a number of conclusions from his evaluations I think we can draw. I will detail just three interconnected points:

  1. The history of the internet cannot not be divorced from broader historical developments. The internet is not (although it can sometimes appear to be) a world apart from the one in which we daily toil; subsequently, a history of the internet cannot avoid the cultural and social underpinnings that influenced its development.
  2. Taking cue from 1, we should always be cognizant of the internet’s origins in military spending (e.g., ARPA’s contracts with the Defense Dept.), and the constant possibility, in various permutations, of its potential for weaponization (useful to remember considering today’s political situations).
  3. The theory underlying the development of network systems and the internet must itself must be framed by two opposing tendencies:  the ideal of a “closed” world, built on the slag of Cold War paranoia, and the ideal of an “open” world, inspired by proponents of the 60’s dream of freedom and human connection.

Going a little beyond Rosenzweig’s essay, I cannot help but feel Benjamin’s essay looms large when considering these issues, especially when it comes to historical preservation.  Historians usually like to work with original source documents; since this is not always feasible, reproductions may do.  Historians have almost always (until now) worked with physical reproductions (like copies on microforms).  The arrival of computers and the internet, however, has opened up the vast realm of digital reproductions.  Thus, even while historians are busying themselves with how to actually write a history of the internet, the internet is all the while shaping and influencing the way historians think and do their work.  Any “history of the internet” thus needs to be conscious of how the internet has changed history.  Furthermore, if there is ever a time or place for Friedrich Schlegel’s dictum of the historian as a “retrospective prophet” to be taken under advisement, it is here and now–because the internet is very much alive and well today, and ever-evolving, historians, even as they look to its past, should also be considering its futural prospects.  Perhaps the source code contains the portents, as it were, of where its technology will lead us next.


Reflections on Marx’s Capital Vol.1, Chapter15, “Machinery and Modern Industry,”

While reading Marx, I found really interesting the  way  he opens chapter 15 by quoting John Stuart:” It’s really questionable if all mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being.” This preliminary assumption gives the tone of the book section, as the author keeps on reformulating that premise in different ways…

I would like us to reflect on the above excerpt, from section 5: “The Strife Between Workman and Machine”:

“Abbé Lancellotti, in a work that appeared in Venice in 1636, but which was written in 1579, says as follows:’Anthony Muller of Danzig saw about 50 years ago in that , a very ingenuous machine, which weaves 4 to 6 pieces at once. But the Mayor being apprehensive that this invention might throw a large number of workmen on the streets, caused the inventor to be secretly strangled or drowned”

What does the Mayor’s reaction to innovation reveal about the Early-Modern conception of machinery? In what specific way that invention could have led to underemployment? Which  tools make that machine “ingenuous”? For which purpose(s) is Marx quoting Lancellotti more than two century later- especially after the Industrial revolution? Do contemporary men  react or ‘have to react’ like the Mayor towards incessantly innovative and competitive  forms of “machinery”?

“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Walter Benjamin

“The Work of Art on the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Walter Benjamin was published in 1936, the inter war period. “Having experienced Fascism and the fascist use of media in Germany” [from Media & Cultural Studies Keyworks ed. by Durham and Kellner] Benjamin speaks to the transformation of the Marxian superstructure which he observed “has taken more than a half century to manifest in all areas of culture the change in the conditions of production”. Reflecting on the function of art in the 20th century, he explores a theory of art and the “useful formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.” [Preface] Since first reading this essay fifteen years ago, I’ve always been struck by its prescience and continual resonance in the digital age, so please forgive the length of this provocation beyond the recommended 2-3 paragraph blog post.

Benjamin asserts that the work of art has always been reproducible, but is quick to point out that mechanical reproduction, i.e., Marxian Capitalist mechanistic reproduction, through photography and film, represents something new. Benjamin discusses the profound repercussions that reproduction of works of art through photography, and the ‘art of the film’ have had on art in its traditional form. [Section I] Given this context, what are your thoughts on Benjamin’s statement that “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be,” or in Benjamin-ian terms, its “aura”. [Section II] Benjamin further clarifies and defines the term “aura” of the work of art as “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction”. Do you agree or disagree?

For this provocation, I’ll use an example from art: does Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa cease to be the Mona Lisa if we remove her from the rooms in which Leonardo painted and her patron intended her or the Louvre where she has resided for many centuries and still resides today? For example, more specifically, an enlarged and interactive Mona Lisa is currently on display in the windows of fashion conglomerate LVMH at 5th Ave. and 57th Street and she even winks. She is featured in a collection of luxury leather products designed by artist Jeff Koons entitled “MASTERS” that retails for approx. $585.00 – $4,000.00. Here’s a recent photo of the display:

Mona Lisa is also currently on display at my local mall via a jacket design: 

Do you think such reproduction erodes, or conversely, enhances the Benjamin-ian aura of this work of art?

Benjamin attributes social bases for the “contemporary decay of the aura” and that these “rest on two circumstances, both of which are related to the increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life.” [Section III] What are your thoughts on this?

While the contemporary cult of the Mona Lisa carries on in our modern fashion world today, Benjamin states that “originally, the contextual integration of art in tradition found its expression in the cult” and he clarifies, “in other words, the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value” and he proceeds with “an all-important insight: for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.” Benjamin then points out a paradox that “to an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.” Cautioning, he qualifies this with: “But the instant that the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.” [Section IV] Do you think the post-millennial function of art is one of ritual, politics or both? Can you cite examples of works of art to illustrate your point of view?

The Internet, and our use of it, are for us, in my opinion based upon Benjamin, the ultimate mechanical reproduction of art and exhibition space (another important concept to Benjamin). Acting as the mass which “is a matrix from which all traditional behavior toward works of art issues today in a new form” [Section XV] the Internet’s inherent mechanical reproduction is the ultimate emancipation of art, and I’d add, also its paradoxical enslavement of art to the new rituals of clicking, copying, pasting, scanning, uploading, downloading, swiping, posting, re-posting, tweeting, re-tweeting, liking, favorite-ing and deleting.

While it is easy for me to grasp the degradation of the Benjamin-ian aura in the work of art, because all one has to do is photocopy the Mona Lisa from an art book or copy it from a website and see the loss of resolution and aesthetic quality with each generation, one must ask rhetorically how Benjamin foresaw this without the benefit of Xerox, Photoshop, the World Wide Web, apps such as Instagram and filters. Do you find “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” as forward thinking as I do? Does it hold up in the digital age?

I cannot overlook that this provocation is assigned and intended for the readings for our Sept. 11 class, and it brings to mind some remarks made by the author of “Prozac Nation” Elizabeth Wurtzel. They struck me then and still do now, as reminiscent of the Epilogue in which Benjamin theorizes that war is the ultimate work of art. Wurtzel was asked about the events of Sept. 11, 2001 in February 2002 during an interview to promote her book More, Now, Again by the Toronto Globe and Mail in the context of her residency close to the World Trade Center, and she commented as follows: ‘I had not the slightest emotional reaction. I thought, this is a really strange art project…it was a most amazing sight in terms of sheer elegance. It fell like water. It just slid, like a turtleneck going over someone’s head.’ (Her comments set off a shock wave and likely caused her movie for “Prozac Nation” made by Miramax not to be released.) For me, these comments brought to mind words of Benjamin I have difficulty typing and relaying that “war is beautiful” and that “through gas warfare the aura is abolished in a new way.” Writing in his time and place, Benjamin quotes Fascism “Fiat ars – pereat mundus” (translation: let art be created, though the world perish) which was the Fascist spin on “l’art pour l’art” (art for art’s sake) and concludes by conjecturing “war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense of perception that has been changed by technology.” [Epilogue] Do you find this to be the logical and probable post-Marxian evolution?

Related Video Clip: Does this video of LVMH’s Titian window (detail from the painting of Mars, Venus and Cupid) decay its aura or enhance it?

Related Resources:

“Jeff Koons’s New Line” by Vanessa Friedman, The New York Times, April 11, 2017

“The Louis Vuitton x Jeff Koons Bags May Be My Least Favorite Designer Collab Ever” by Amanda Mull on purseblog, April 13, 2017

“Release Me” by John Harris, The Guardian, July 17, 2004

“Mona Lisa & an Iguana on 5th” by Carolyn A. McDonough, on CultureArtMedia, September 1, 2017

Reflections on Blade Runner

  • Greetings everyone,

    My name is Kahdeidra, and I was unable to attend this week’s class session; however, I have listened to the audio recording of the discussion and have attempted two provocations based on what I heard and my own analysis of the reading and film. I’d love to read your thoughts!

    Provocation #1.
    In this Monday’s class, Professor Mandiberg posed the following question: How did the text and the film represent race or not? The class discussed how the Androids are enslaved labor and that indigenous and African-descended people are entirely excluded from the narrative. For me, the idea of colonizing another place immediately foregrounded racialized colonialism and chattel slavery. However, there also appears to be a metanarrative on Orientalism in the film. In the film’s setting, Japanese female sexuality is idealized and is the dominant representation. This contrasts with the U.S. tradition of White female sexuality and beauty being idealized. One recalls the advertisement in the opening scenes. The advertisements feature an Asian woman dressed as a Geisha. As a viewer, how did you “see” this woman? Did she seem out of place, or did you accept it as a logical aspect of setting? What was Deckerd’s relationship to his surroundings?

    My experience was that we seem to participate in the orientalizing of Asian cultures because our gaze is aligned with Deckerd, a White male authority figure who does not speak either Japanese or the dominant street language, that evolves from several different languages. It was a powerful commentary on linguistic ideology when the Asian American cook is forced to translate for him, and we learn that he is in fact multilingual, despite pretending that he did not understand Deckert’s use of English. Even still, Deckerd does not seem embarrassed, only annoyed by the languaging practices around him. He retains his White male, monolingual privilege in a clearly Asian-dominated, multilingual context.

    Later in the film, I recognized what appeared to be another example of idealizing Japanese female sexuality. The make-up design of the female android with white powder and black eyes was reminiscent of Geisha make-up and Japanese Kabuki theater. Did anyone else have these thoughts? Or, is my analysis overreaching?

    Provocation #2. 
    What do we make of the death of Tyrell, the founder of the Tyrell corporation? It was glossed over in the class discussion, but I think that it is worth revisiting. Consider the manner in which the android killed him. He firmly kissed him on the lips and then gouged his eyes out. How did you read the kiss? Was it homoerotic? Was it a commentary on androgyny and sexual fluidity? Finally, was it significant that his eyes are gouged out? If so, what could his eyes and immediate death symbolize? (I was surprised that he died immediately after this injury. I expected that he would be forced to live with blindness.) What themes could be at play in regards to the role of corporations in our lives?