Who shapes culture today? We do! Sort of.
After World War Two governments retreated from politics…There was a feeling, partly a consequence of Fascism, that you couldn’t trust mass opinion any more… Steadily from the 1950s onwards the influence of the street, of the media, newspapers, public opinion, of ideology, was pushed further and further away from the actual decision-making processes.
Talking about the need for a progressive politics today, Judt also sheds light on our current experience of epochal disjunction:
We can’t come together on the basis of 19th or 20th-century ideas of inevitable progress or the natural historical progression from capitalism to socialism or whatever. We can’t believe in that anymore. And anyway, it can’t do the work for us. We need to rediscover our own language of politics.1
Judt suggests the problem is a reliance on a vocabulary and set of concepts that haven’t kept pace with historical developments. We seem to be lacking the fullness of understanding that is implied in the notion of a paradigm shift. Additionally, a type of futurism, that of cataclysmic change, abounds in daily life. The most obvious example is the drastic alteration of business models and accustomed ways of earning a living, seemingly overnight. This is an experience shared by many, who adapt out of necessity and according to the conceptual framework, so defining of our era, known as technologically led innovation and disruptive change.
Still, my impression is that we imperfectly comprehend the implications of the change being wrought upon us. One reason for this might be how the internet defines the contours of public life today. In The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, a book about how the corporate power consolidations of the internet undermine its utopian rhetoric, Astra Taylor writes,
We need to rethink how power operates in a post-broadcast era. It was easy, under the old media-model to point the finger at television executives and newspaper editors (and even book publishers) and the way they shaped the cultural and social landscape from on high.2
What strikes me are the spatial metaphors used here. Creating an insider/outsider dynamic are the easy-to-identify culprits for the discontents of mainstream culture that Taylor alludes to — TV executives pandering to an imagined lowest common denominator; newspaper editors who cater to the interests of their advertisers; the list could go on. Also the idea that decision-makers worked from on high, a citadel well protected from less sanctioned creative actors. Taylor paints a picture of a culture that was broadcasted to its public, operating within a landscape that was, first of all, possible to survey, and second, possible to shape according to business and other interests.
What’s different now is the changed topography of culture created by the internet. It’s a mass-collaborative project, one that’s difficult to see in a certain sense because of the way its users are so fully enmeshed in the process of its production. This especially is true of social media, whose users are its very essence, but is also a basic characteristic of the platform, which facilitates in general an ongoing dialogue — one that is equal parts frivolous, vituperative and highly informative — that accompanies virtually everything that appears on the internet.
Of course, as Taylor cautions, while the online conversation (thirty odd years and counting) has been fun it’s characterized by certain naivety. Her basic point is that, sure, the internet is kind of utopian, but you can believe this only by ignoring how perfectly intact it leaves basic power structures and accelerates wealth inequality, while enabling a decline in personal privacy, commercialization of the commons, and increased surveillance by a quasi-totalitarian state. Accordingly, more thinking is in order. Specifically, about what generalized notions we can take from the enmeshed production of culture that is now a daily habit for a billion or more people.
1) Tony Judt and Kristina Božič, “The Way Things Are and How They Might Be,” London Review of Books Vol. 32 No. 6 25 March 2010
2) Astra Taylor, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (Toronto: Random House, 2014) 9.
This is one of ten posts written to accompany the Kunsthalle Wien’s Political Populism exhibition (November 11, 2015 – February 2, 2016).