Friday, January 13, 2017

Trump. LL Bean, and American Politics in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

The politicization of LL Bean is only the latest in the ongoing culture war in the United States.
Here, because of contributions by an heir and one of the board members to LL Bean who has supported Trump have  been attributed to the company itself, it has led to a boycott against the company among some who dislike Trump.  It did not help that Trump tweeted endorsement for LL Bean and encouraged consumers to support it. Earlier in the week it was the Golden Globes and Meryl Streep v. Streep.   Both instances point to the politicization and polarization of practically everything in American society.  How did this happen?  The simple answer lies in how our culture has been stripped of its independence and captured by economics.  This is exactly what Walter Benjamin predicted and described.
Walter Benjamin was a pre-World War II social and political critic who was part of the German Critical School.   One of the most influential essays he ever wrote–and well known to many in the arts and cultural theory–was his “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”  Here he argued that t he capacity to mass reproduce original art changed it.    Market reproduction and sale of art would strip the original “aura” or context of an object and art, placing it within a new context and thereby change its meaning also.  Context for art, means everything.  The recently deceased John Berger’s Ways of Seeing is classic in pointing to this, and much of Andy Warhol’s  art–such as with Campbells Soup cans–also articulates how stripping objects out of their original context can convey new meanings.
But Benjamin’s essay asks if mass reproduction of art has striped art of its aura, what has replaced it?  Politics.  He saw in fascism the merger of politics and aesthetics.  But Benjamin’s arguments about art’s reproducability is not simply about art.  His deeper critique is also about the power of market forces to transform the world.  It was Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto who declared of the power of capitalism to render “ All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”  For Marx the commodification of all of life–work, home, family, and the arts–is what made for part of the class war.  Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks noted the same phenomena–the use of cultural landmarks as lines in the hegemonic  political wars over class struggles. Capitalization would eviscerate the walls the distinguished what Daniel Bell argued in the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism  once described as the three distinct spheres of culture–politics, economics, and civil society.  Everything would be commodified, everything politicized.  If as political theorist Michael Walzer once argued that the essence of modern society was the art of separation–ensuring that we draw limits on various activities and institutions–we no longer see that separation.
The politicization of everything as it plays out in the United States seems less class-based  and more partisan.  It was brought on by the failure of our society, in part, to put firm fire walls in place that separate the economic marketplace from the political marketplace.  Allowing for personal  wealth to translate into political influence, letting corporations make political expenditures, and permitting businesses and corporations to speak as if they were real persons, all have contributed to this. But the same is true in letting pop culture and its icons make political statements or use art for political purposes.  Of course the First Amendment protects that right but the side effect is that everything has become or potentially could become a political statement.
Thus, there is nothing now that is not politicized along partisan lines.  Driving Suburu cars versus snow mobiles, shopping at Whole Foods versus eating at Cracker Barrel, watching Duck Dynasty v. Modern Family, all of the are predictors of partisanship as much as registering or voting Democrat or Republican.  In many cases, these fights are side shows, diversions for more fundamental issues that actually should be fought and addressed; yet people become so consumed with the sideshow they ignore the deeper problems of poverty, racism, sexism, and unequal divisions of political and economic power that are the real sources of division in America today.

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